Monday, October 28, 2019

Folding Memories


This post was originally published on City Dads Group where they inexplicably welcome my meanderings.  If it seems familiar, that's why, that or I already wrote something similar eight years ago... and yes, I could look into that, but, I don't want to.

***

I’ve heard parenting described as a vocation where the goal is to work yourself out of a job. Seems pretty accurate to me.

As a longtime stay-at-home-parent, I see myself doing it all the time. In fact, as I write, the washing machine is spinning noisily and the dryer is droning away, and I didn’t start either of them. My 14-year-old twin sons are doing their laundry today, a job I did for them for years. I showed them the ropes a few months ago and now, begrudgingly and with a bit of prompting from me, they’ve been doing it on their own.

Late last week, I found one of them riding the lawn mower, finishing the last part of our long backyard. The other will do it this week. There’s a lot to learn about mowing and there is an inherent danger in it, so I had been reluctant to show them how. But this year, I figured they are both tall and strong enough to wrestle the old Cub Cadet around the yard. I’ll show them how to do the trim work with the push mower in the coming weeks.

This morning, I woke up — later than usual — to the smell of sausages and potatoes. I went into the kitchen to start my coffee but I couldn’t tell if someone had made breakfast. The counters were wiped, the dishes in the machine, even the frying pan was hanging clean and dry on the rack. I thought maybe I hadn’t smelled right or something.

I asked the boy on the Nintendo Switch in the living room if he’d had breakfast. He had, and for the first time, had cleaned everything up.

Perhaps some of you are thinking to yourself: Damn straight, ‘bout time they pulled their weight around the old homestead. Yeah, I get that, But, and I might be criticized for this, I didn’t have children to do my work for me. An acquaintance of mine called me late one night decades ago to tell me his toddler had gotten him a beer from the refrigerator. He’d, uh, trained her, I guess, to do it and he thought it was a hoot. I still know the daughter and she stopped getting his fucking beers when she turned 12 — they were never close.

There are, I’m sure, dozens of other examples just like these of me working myself out of jobs. I’m OK with it, of course, but there is another description of parenting that I’d like to share with you: Parenting is just one long damn goodbye.

I always thought of doing my boys’ laundry as something I was supposed to do for them not because of them. Did it overwhelm me at times? Yes, but not often. Mostly, it was just another chore, a part of my job, just labor. I’d set timers for when a load was done, I folded on a custom-built folding table just beside the dryer, left-handed boy’s stuff on the left, the other’s on the right. I’d stand and fold and pair and pile and … think.

I can’t begin to tell you how much you can learn about your children from doing their laundry. You learn what they favor, what pants and shirts, what socks are worn most often – that kind of thing. But, there’s a bit more. All those loads of laundry gave me a sense of how good life has been to them, to us. Jeans with holes and grass-stains, mended and scrubbed, are a reminder that they are healthy, that the yard is green and long enough to shag flies. A fruit-punch stained white shirt is from a birthday party at the laser tag place. A blood stain on the collar of a gray hoodie is from cut on the forehead from a killer tube ride at the lake. I wasn’t folding clothes; I was folding memories.

When they were really little, two years old maybe, I’d take them for rides on the tractor without the mower engaged. We’d laugh and curve around the yard, them marveling at the wildness of it all, me at their delight in it. As they got older, I remember them watching me mow and feeling like a mounted knight, a sweating hero for them in the blistering August sun. In fact, there’s a picture of one of them, watching me go around the yard, standing on the porch with a shoe in his hand, hoping for a ride. A few years later, the fascination with it faded, but I still remember their little faces watching me. It felt good.

Today, as I look upon backyard from the dining room table, thinking about laundry and tractors, they are making lunch for themselves. More a raiding party, really. They are heating leftovers and adding this and that, improvising as one does in the kitchen. I watch and listen and think back to a time when I made every meal for them, never really imagining a day when I didn’t have to.

One long damn goodbye. Goodbye to the closeness I felt to them, handling all those clothes, steeped in dirt and stains and memory.

One long damn goodbye. Goodbye to knowing I’m watched, appreciated, needed. To feeling like a hero, a man, a father on my gas-powered steed.

One long damn goodbye. Farewell to cooking every meal, preparing every snack, packing every lunch, buying every banana, pear and apple, roast and chop.

You may be thinking, shouldn’t I be glad to not have all that work to do.


Maybe I should, but mostly I don't.


Friday, October 25, 2019

Happy Endings; Sad Endings

This post was originally posted as Endings in Parenting Story Often More Bittersweet, Sad Than Happy on City Dads Group where I write a piece now and again.  I post it here because I am trying to get everything in one place, you know?


 

Do you know Shel Silverstein? It doesn’t matter much, a poet – any artist, really – is only showing you what you already know. Does this line sound familiar? “Once there was a tree … and she loved a boy.” Yes, The Giving Tree.

I have a weird and long history with his work. I first encountered him in my youth in the 1970s in Playboy magazine, which, at the time I was reading for the articles and interviews. Later, in college, in an acting seminar I was taking, I helped develop – and later toured to elementary schools – a short work based on his poems. At that time, I would have never guessed I’d be folded up on a tiny chair, reading some of the same poems to my twin sons’ first-grade class some 25 years later.

Silverstein is sometimes called a children’s writer, but there is a lot of his work that would prove the contrary. Even in the books and poems he wrote for children there are nods and winks to the parents and caregivers. I remember reading The Giving Tree once and choking back a sob at the deep joy and sadness in so few and simple words, perhaps you have as well.

I was reminded recently of his poem “Happy Ending” from his last book Every Thing On It, published posthumously:

There are no happy endings.
Endings are the saddest part.
So just give me a happy middle
And a very happy start.

I never thought about beginnings and endings much as a younger man and hardly at all as a boy. I suppose that may be because they often seemed simultaneous. Eighth grade ends, high school begins; friends go, others move in to fill the spot; this job gone, a new one comes along – nothing was ever final.

I’m older now. I sense finality more. Endings are often poignant and bittersweet. If you’re a parent you’ll recognize them – last ballgames, last sippy cups, the final swim in the baby pool, the last time they need your help on the sledding hill or on their bikes or getting dressed or tying shoes … you know. I think that’s what Shel Silverstein means by no happy endings — a story may end positively enough but that means the story is over and stories, when finished, are sad. They fall into memory and retire — quietly, softly — to our hearts when they’d much rather live on.

As a parent, though, I was always thrilled about those starts. God, memories just swamped me, as happens — the rolling over, the cruising, the toddling; all the new and different foods; beach trips and diapers and more diapers and sand and sunburns; the first teams, the first games, the first wins, the first losses; the first strum on guitar strings, the first carefree dancing … why am I crying?

Our twin sons are nearly 14 and heading for high school next year. End, start. Start, end. It’s tough to watch, this cycle. Although it is heartbreaking at times, it also is where we witness great joy.

We were in the basement playing ping-pong recently and as the boys hit back and forth, I noticed our old Nerf basketball hoop was drooping, the duct tape failing against the wooden shelf. I went to pull it down and hesitated – an ending. For a brief while – brief for me, longer for them — many months, let’s say, the boys played some version of a basketball game. They called it “Get-the-ball-and-shoot.” You gotta like a game that’s rules are in its name. They did it for hours. There was pushing and arguing. The rules were refined, penalties assessed. They were 6, maybe 7 years old then. It was cute to listen to though a little hard to watch because there was an inherent, well, wildness to it.

Anyway, as I stood, hand reaching up only a little, Zack said: “Don’t take it down, Dad … yet.”

“Yeah, just leave it up for a while longer, it brings back good memories. Three serves seven.” Nick said and served.

Even they know endings are hard.

Do you measure your kids each year or half year as we do? So did Shel Silverstein. Do you mind if I share another? This is called “Wall Marks.”

Those scratchy marks there on the wall,
They show how short I used to be.
They rise until they get this tall,
And Mama keeps reminding me
The way my dad would take his pen
And as I stood there, stiff and straight,
He’s put a ruler on my head
And mark the spot and write the date.
She says that it’s my history,
But I don’t understand at all
Just why she cries each time she sees
Those scratchy marks there on the wall.

Boy, he knew, didn’t he?

Excuse me, I’m going to go downstairs and make sure a Nerf basketball hoop and net stay up for, well … forever.


Well, thanks for reading, or re-reading, I appreciate it.

Peace. 

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Hawk Thing


This piece was first presented on City Dads Group a while back under the title: We Soar Like Hawks for Our Children.  You can see that post here. 


A pair of hawks, probably Cooper’s hawks, command the sky over my backyard and the surrounding acres. I spotted their nest high in an old oak across the street. I’m sure they are a mating pair, although at first, I thought maybe they were a hen teaching her fledgling to hunt. I actually thought that until two minutes ago when I looked up the breed and found out any hawks would only have eggs right now or, more likely, an empty new nest.

So, not a mother teaching a child to hunt or a father teaching a child to soar like I wanted it to be. What I’ve been seeing is likely courtship, nest building, pair bonding. I wanted to extend a metaphor about teaching children to soar and take care of themselves; about the joy of flying and learning and beauty. I had planned to beat that metaphor to death.

I continue to watch them, the hawks, even though I can’t mold them into the symbol I wanted them to become. They fly down again and land on a low branch on a maple not 20 feet from my window. They stand close together and … well. Their tails are red, one more than the other. Dammit, they aren’t even Cooper’s hawks; they are the much more common red-tailed hawk.

Now I won’t be able to share this quote from a college commencement speech Mr. Rogers gave so many years ago:
“In fact, from the time you were very little, you’ve had people who have smiled you into smiling, people who have talked you into talking, sung you into singing, loved you into loving.”
It’ll be hard to work in how those hawks made me think of this quote as I saw one take off and then the other and watched them soar and swoop in the cold February sky, thinking the whole time them parent and child. The effort and the ease of it, the work and then the reward of it all.

What better way to learn to circle through the sky than experiencing another doing it with you, showing it to you?

How can I say, now that the metaphor has failed, that we are like those beautiful hawks, we parents? I look to the wild and see labor of love. Nature doesn’t tell herself about love and ability, she uses no words, explains nothing, just as we cannot explain what love is, what a song or a story or laughter is.

“Smiled you into smiling,” a past tense verb leading to the present tense. And there, I think, is the essence of it all. Love must be a verb, teaching must be verb, parenting and mentoring, action verbs.

That means that we labor to show our children these things.

The first time I encountered the Rogers quote, I continued the thought in my mind.

When I see my nearly 14-year-old son honor someone, I know that I honored him.

When his twin brother marches up to me after an event at the school and says, “Dad, I broke my glasses,” I know his mother and I honested him into the truth.

A kind word to a classmate, is the kind word offered to them.

We laughed them into laughing, held them into holding, dreamed them into dreaming, cried them into crying, shined them into shining.

One of the hawks sends a shadow across the backyard. Maybe I wasn’t as wrong as I thought I was. Perhaps, now that I know they are just a pair of birds, what I noticed was the action of them, always above, on the hunt, always watching.

I probably won’t see when their nestlings are hatched and fed and ready to leave; the first fall from the nest; won’t see the wings open and watch as the wind fills them as they glide away. But I see it now, don’t I? I see it in the flaps and dives of these two birds, these parents.

Just as I see me, my wife, teachers, leaders, friends … you, mirrored in the hearts and souls of my sons, your daughters, our children.

We’ve shown them into showing.

Graced them into grace.

Hoped them into hope.

Flown them into flying.

Watched them into watching.


So, that's that.  I try do everything I can to have what I've written out in the innerwebs all in one place.

As always, peace.  If you ever wonder what I've been writing of late, well...

I am working on stuff, but, I'm finding it harder to hit the old "publish" button.  More on that later.

Thanks for stopping by.

 

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

It's Quittin' Time, Again



My soul has been a bit sad lately, my heart a little achy.

Do I know why?

I think it’s because I’m human.

I also think it’s my smartphone…  (I’ve never typed that word before in my life.)

I’m not going to tell you why, you already know.  You’re very likely reading this on one.  That’s why I’m trying not to use long sentences or paragraphs, nobody wants that on a teeny-tiny-ass screen.  Dammit, that was long…

You already know how bombarded one can feel on social media. 

You already know the hollowness of comparing yourself to others in your circles.

You also know the emptiness that digital communication leaves in us, the ice between the ones and zeros.

You know the isolation of the so-called connectivity - head down, shoulders in – lost in absolutely nothing.

Listen, maybe I shouldn’t assume you feel the same as I do.  I’m sure many of you use your phone with great care and prudence.

You know what?  I can’t maintain this style.  I can’t continue on with these short sentences and I love long paragraphs and I like to juxtapose them to short ones.  It’s a balance game writers like to play, to visually move the reader’s eyes and encourage them to move along in the narrative, an impossible tactic on a three by five screen.

***

As all boys do, I watched my father a lot growing up.  He whistled and I learned to whistle.  He put his hands in his pockets, I still do.  He crossed his right leg over his left, so did I.  And, he smoked and so did I for over thirty years.

I don’t have many moving-picture-like memories, I tend more towards polaroids and panoramic landscapes, Dutch still-lifes and a nude or two.  One of the few I do have is a short scene of my dad getting up from his chair in my childhood home.  He is dressed in a suit, a charcoal one, as was the fashion in the late fifties and well into the sixties when this takes place.  He is slim and the suit fits him nicely, he has a muted maroon bowtie on and brown loafers and belt.

The light is morning like, I’d guess we are headed for church.  His chair has a footstool which he likes close when he puts his feet up.  My mother calls and he brings his knees up and gets his feet on his side of the stool and pushes it out so he can stand.  His hands go to his knees, I can still see his turquoise and gold ring, he makes the dad grunt and sort of rocks up still bent at the waist, he straightens up slowly.  I don’t think he sees me watching him even though I feel close, close enough to smell his Old Spice, black coffee and Camels.

As he gathers himself he absented-mindedly taps his hand on his left breast.  The hand, not satisfied, then reaches inside the coat, first into his shirt pocket, then the inside pocket of the jacket.  Now, both hands, in tandem, quickly shoot into the outside pockets of the jacket – they worked back then – and then into the front pockets of the slacks.  These jingle satisfactorily, but the dance goes on to the back pockets where they linger.  He looks silly, in fact, it all seems silly.

Dad looks perplexed, I am straight-up confused.

Finally, he looks down and over at me.  He smiles at me and cocks his head as he sees them out of the corner of his eye, a pack of Camel’s and a white book of matches.  His face is pleased, relieved.  He chuckles at himself, as men do, and winks at me as he put them in the inside pocket of his coat, pats them knowingly a couple of times, deftly buttons his coat with one hand and walks towards the kitchen.

End scene.

***

More than anything, what impressed my little eight- or nine-year-old self was his satisfaction at finding them and, to some extent, the matching anxiety at not having them.  Years and years later, I worked in a restaurant where, as a bartender, I wore a suit and tie every day.  I probably did that cigarette dance a dozen times a week.  I caught myself at it one time in the mirror behind the scotch and bourbon and saw my father, I gave myself the same wink he had given me that Sunday morning past.

Why, I wonder, am I bringing this up?  Because, I see this same dance these days, but now it’s for a phone.  Just last week at the grocery store I saw a lady do the extended version of it.  As she stood just outside her car, door still open, with growing anxiety she checked all her pockets and rifled somewhat madly through her purse, finally ducking back into the car and coming back up with that satisfied, relieved look, and… a phone clutched triumphantly in her hand.

I watched smokers for years as a bartender and waiter, back in the days of smoking sections and lounges.  I’ve watched, as, mid conversation a hand reaches for a pack and, with seemingly no concentration or effort a smoke was acquired and lit.  The same way I see folks so absentmindedly reach for their smartphones these days.  I’ve seen the agitation of a guy out of cigarettes concerned about when he’ll get another mirrored in the look of someone whose phone is out of power or, worse, not connected.  I’ve watched as one person at my bar lit a cigarette and the whole bar lighting up at the scent of the first just as I’ve seen one person check their phone and watched as those around them looked at theirs.

I read an article I can’t find right now that said something to the affect that in fifteen or twenty years we’ll all be wondering what the hell we were thinking giving iPhones and androids to children, just as we wonder now what society was thinking when we let – encouraged, really - young men and women begin smoking in their teens.

I know you may be thinking that this analogy is a little dire and, seeing it here in black and white, I’d tend to agree.  However, I know what addiction feels like, I know its ups and downs, its desire and relief.  I know the dopamine rush as well as the physical anticipation of that next hit.  I know how good the ritual of an addiction feels, how true and real the desire for a thing can be.  I know.

And, as God is my witness, my smartphone feeds that cycle today just as surely as those Marlboros did for all those years.

I don’t like it.  What’s weird is, truth be told, I liked smoking and damn near every cigarette was enjoyable, honest.

Not with my smartphone.  It mostly just pisses me off and disappoints me.  The news is so dire, so ugly mean and intense.  So much so that, for me, even a decent, happy story, a “feel-good” story I think they call them, can taste saccharine, treacly.  Facebook consistently disappoints me.  In the early years I really enjoyed it, but now so few friends even post anything, it seems a bit pointless.

There’s one more thing I’d like to say:  I am not on this earth to be advertised to…

Well, that’s not a very good sentence.  Listen, that smartphone is specifically designed and coded and programmed to advertise.  “Sponsored” posts on FB, ads in every video, Amazon notifications out of the blue.  Ads on the games we play, the blogs we read, the podcasts and vlogs.  I won’t go on. 

Damn, I completely forgot you were reading this on your phone.

I’ll let you go.

I’m gonna turn my Facebook off later tonight, Fat Tuesday.

I will set my phone down where the house phone used to be - it's a pretty spot - and turn up the ringer and hope for the best.   It'll be right here, on top of that wooden box, nestled under the shamrock which I noticed has two hidden blooms:



You see, I still need a communication device, I like texting and I need to get phone calls.  That’s the insidiousness of the whole thing, something you need, something useful, paired with this lame entertainment device that just wants to separate us from our money.  That’s fucked up.

(My apologies again to those using great care and prudence with their phones, and those few who still read things on their computer.)

I plan to keep writing here, but I won’t be able to promote them by posting on FB, so ya’ll won’t know it’s here.  Oh, well…

Keep in mind these are just my observations, my responses, my feelings.  One cannot qualify every statement and sentence with an “IMHO” or “for me” or “I can’t speak for you, but…” in a bit of writing, it becomes tedious.

I’ll probably return to FB after Easter, but, I hope to get rid of this phone for good.

It sorta burns my hand…


Peace.  

Look me up sometime if you think of me.

I’ll be here.