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Looking Back at Christmas 2004

December 24, 2014 Leave a comment

This afternoon I went out on my lunch break to the Walmart to find some dry erase markers that are to be a part of a special Santa present to the boys. It was rainy and dreary and as I tried to navigate out of the difficult parking lot, a sudden strong memory came out of the blue and hit me in the face. It was the memory of being a stranger in a strange land trying to piece together a Christmas during what was already the most exciting time of my life.

IMG_0137Ten years ago, Andrea and I arrived in the Lehigh Valley with a moving truck and a group of friends and family ready to help us fill up our small rented home in Bethlehem. Even as boxes and pianos were moved and friends and family standing near, we carried a big big secret with us. More specifically, Andrea carried the big secret. It was only a week before Christmas and we knew that was the time to tell our families that a baby was on its way, not while we were covered in dust and sweat.

It was a hugely exciting time for us. The move to a house in Pennsylvania, where day care and everything else was less expensive than in New Jersey was a deliberate and calculated act when it came to the baby. We told everyone there were other reasons, but growing our little family was at the heart of the matter. We just didn’t expect Benjamin to become a welcome intrusion to our lives as quickly as he did. Knowing what we know now about Benjamin, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised.

I watched Andrea closely. I made sure she didn’t carry any big boxes. I handed her stuff to carry that wouldn’t even cause a sweat. And we moved and no one was the wiser. The next several days were a blur. As our friends and family went their ways our little house suddenly felt as big as a cathedral. It was just the four of us (our dog Edgar would very quickly learn he was no longer the baby) in that house and even though Andrea and I had known each other for ten years at that point, our life together felt like it was just beginning.

Our stay in the Lehigh Valley began the next day with Andrea very, very sick. Despite best efforts, the activity of the day before had taken it’s toll on her and it feels like she spent the entire week between then and Christmas in her pajamas. It wasn’t the truth; we both had to work a couple of days and in reality, I think she was just sick through an extended weekend. As she snuggled in, I did my best to unpack and get boxes away. Christmas was upon us and I wasn’t going to let it slip by, unobserved in our new house. Andrea moved from chair to chair as I rearranged stuff to make room for a tree and she looked on, going from amused to calculating how quickly she could get to the bathroom.

At some point, we wandered down Broad Street to a Christmas tree stand. We found the perfect tree for our little house, brought it home and decorated it, surrounded by boxes. It was moments like that which triggered the sense of the magnitude of the situation.

We were in a tiny house in a big giant new world for us. We were in a city where we didn’t know where to even get groceries. We didn’t know anyone else and we felt so alone with this big secret. But looking back, there was something so very sweet about it. We had each other and this giant secret between us and the intimacy of that situation contrasted with being in a strange new city made me feel closer to Andrea than I ever have, I think.

We eventually found our way around. I found that Walmart that triggered my memory today. I had gone there for some small things for the house and stocking stuffers for Andrea. I think it was the first store I was able to locate after the move and it’s somehow become burned in my memory, closely associated with that Christmas. Andrea and I would also venture out for a late dinner one night to satisfy a pregnancy craving, and that memory was also burned in my mind. I remember staring out the fake snow frosted window at the Giant across the way and being both scared and excite. However, I also remember thinking that Andrea and I had each other and everything would be fine.

That Christmas. That rushed, weird and even sad little Christmas is still, to this day, one of my favorites. Andrea and I found ourselves caught between our own childhood Christmases, our life together as just the two of us and the boys that would fill up that tiny house and the next one with such joy and love. It was the scariest and most exciting Christmas of my life. While each Christmas with my boys and the Christmases of my childhood are wonderful and sacred, that Christmas 10 years ago in Bethlehem is the one that is burned into my memory to the extent that I sometimes wonder if everything that did happen could have really happened.

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Seizing Summer Nights

August 14, 2014 Leave a comment

20140814_225812When it became obvious back in March that I was going to lose my job, I began planning my summer home with the boys. While optimistic, I really did not expect to get a new job and was counting on getting through the summer on severance. So, the running half-joke was “Daddy Summer Camp” – a list of all the things the boys and I would do through the summer. They included staying a couple of days with our friends in the Poconos, day trips to go fish and hang out on the lake I grew up near with my sister and her grandson, movies on rainy afternoons, teaching Matt how to ride his bike, bike trips on the rail trail, mini-baseball camp, mini-basketball camp, and the list went on and on.

It got to the point where it felt like the silver lining of losing my job could help me forget everything else. I really liked the thought of spending a summer with my sons, especially at the age they are at now where they like hanging out with me and haven’t yet discovered that I am a big dork. I even began to have romantic thoughts of being able to sit out in the backyard and write a little bit…maybe work on my novel.

On my last day at my old job, about 30 minutes before a sort of exit call with my old boss, I was offered a job. A wave of relief washed over me. There are a lot of people out there who struggle to find work and sometimes even interviews. I was blessed to have received a job offer after averaging an interview every two weeks or so. I knew right away (pending another job that was still up in the air) that I was going to accept the job. I knew it was the right thing for me and for our family.

Yet, as much as the logic of the situation settled in and six months of stress was removed, I was, at the same time, crushed emotionally. I had started looking forward to Daddy Day Camp. Spending a summer with the boys was a thought that just brought me such joy. The new job, as selfish as this sounds, was a crushing blow to me. It made me incredibly sad. I had lost my summer.

Fortunately, I was able to take a full month off. For the first three weeks, I was able to get things done around the house during the day and then get Ben and Matt at the bus stop and hang out with them and play. When school ended, we jammed as much as we could in a week. A trip to Dorney Park, a fishing trip, a couple of days in the Poconos, a movie and a few other things. Matt even learned to ride his bike. The month and that week, especially, was a wonderful time. I still feel full of joy when I think of it.

The couple of days before I started my new job, I just felt rotten. My old job allowed me to work at home a few days a week when I needed and I had a lot of flexibility. The fact that my new job, during the probationary period, would have none of that actually made me angry. It was a difficult transition. It felt like the summer was over and I mourned its loss.

A few days after I started the new job, however, I made a decision that I wasn’t going to let the summer slip away. Even though the days, like most human beings, were going to be spent working, I didn’t have to let that be the summer. I realized that Summer Nights are long. I decided I was going to take the nights.

So, instead of coming home and just crashing in front of the TV, I started playing basketball with Ben and Matt. We play chess, sometimes outside and we ride our bikes. We have Nerf gun battles, play soccer and plan our next adventures. Sure there are times when I need to just crash a bit when I come home and there are nights when we don’t do anything, but we have packed so much into this summer, it is unbelievable. I am determined to make the most of it.

In light of the news from this week, “Carpe Diem” seems to be an overly appropriate phrase right now. Making the most of each and every day and night (a quick internet search turned up the phrase Carpe Noctem, which might be more appropriate for my thoughts here, but there seems to be a connection to vampires with that) really makes the days brighter. Everyone knows that working sucks, but I won’t let it define me.

I am a father first…a Papa, and by seizing these summer nights, I am letting that define me. I will not let this summer pass me by…”Aestate Apprehendite”!

A Million Different Ways

August 12, 2014 Leave a comment

benYou think you have a good sense of it going in, or at least what the changes will be. You know that life is going to change. You know about the late nights and the lack of sleep and the slowly dwindling bank account and the rooms that fill up quickly with weird stuff are all known warnings. But really, nothing…absolutely nothing…can warn you about what becoming a parent really means.

And then the child comes along and all that happens…and then all the things start to happen that nobody warns you about. That wave of joy that washes over you when you see their faces in the morning. The music that is their laughter as it fills a house. The conversations between two brothers. The imaginations, the playful scheming, the off the wall comments. The jokes without punchlines that are still funnier because of the source. The analysis that comes with trying something new. The million different ways that they can make life better. The way they can cheer you up just by watching them do just about anything.

Nine years ago today, Benjamin was born and my life changed forever.  It hasn’t always been easy, but the happiness he and Matthew bring me every single day cannot be measured.  The day Ben was born was the day my life changed for the better forever.

Meet Our New Mortal Enemy

August 7, 2014 Leave a comment

Piping-PLoverA few weeks ago, we returned to North Carolina’s Outer Banks for vacation after the boys fell in love with it for the first time and Andrea and I fell in love with it all over again last year. With Andrea spending long stretches of time in Mexico and the stress around the uncertainty and then termination of my job in the last six months, we truly needed this return to the quiet, relaxing beaches of Hatteras Island, together as a family, with no outside stress.

One of the highlights from our trip last year was when Benjamin and Andrea made the long hike out to the Cape Point near the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. It is known for all the sea shells that wash up on shore along with the fact that you can wade out into the surf at low tide without being hammered by waves. Without an off-road permit for your car it is a good 30 minute walk to get there from the parking lot. When Andrea and Ben went last year not only did they find some cool shells, but it was a sweet adventure for the two of them. There was a certain magic to it. So much so, that Ben and Andrea really wanted to do it again this year and their excitement was contagious to Matthew and I.

We checked the tide charts and decided the best time to go was at 6:00 AM on our last full day there, so we set our alarm for bright and early and off we went.

After 25 minutes of walking, we could see the point of the Cape…But we also saw a sign on a post with wire heading in both directions towards other posts…A makeshift barrier.  The National Park Service had closed down the cape to everyone…No exceptions, not even for two incredibly disappointed little boys.

It was a very quiet walk back to the car, with the silence interrupted occasionally by one of the four of us taking turns wondering out loud why the signs weren’t posted in the parking lot. The boys were being mostly good sports about it, but they were clearly upset. The disappointment hung in the fresh, salty air.

When we finally got back to the car, we found a place to grab breakfast. While waiting for our food, using her phone, Andrea tried to find out why the cape was closed. Best she could find was that it was either to protect sea turtle eggs or nesting Piping Plovers.

We all love sea turtles, but we had no idea what the hell a Piping Plover is. And so, the Piping Plover instantly took on our wrath! Turns out it is an endangered but ridiculously cute shore bird. The cute little menace looks like it spends its days running along the edge of the water eating whatever sealife comes in with the tide and disappointing families everywhere.  Immediately, the jokes began about hunting down the tasty little morsels and how we should be having Piping Plover for breakfast. Suddenly, we had a target for the morning disappointment and the fact that it is so cute just seemed to make our now feigned anger at it even funnier.  I’ll never forget how the giggles erupted from around the table when we looked at pictures of this little hell-bird.

And just like that, disappointment was turned to laughter and the Piping Plover has become part of our family history. While we had so many great memories, it is the Piping Plover, I think,  that we are going to remember the most from this trip. Weeks later now, the very mention of that damn Piping Plover causes Matthew to pretend growl and mumble “I hate that Piping Plover!” Ben will talk about how tasty the little bird must be and we all laugh.

20140807_223122Sure, the fire on the beach at dusk and spending a day floating, playing and exploring the sound are wonderful memories. And, it’s not that we are focused on this disappointment. It’s just that we were able to turn the disappointment around and laugh at ourselves and our sorry failed expedition which saw a stupid little bird get the best of us. I think it’s an important life-lesson for the boys. Life is going to be full of disappointments, but how you overcome them are what’s going to bring about life’s sweetest moments. When life gives you Piping Plovers, you make roast Piping Plover with a nice herb and garlic sauce.

And, apparently, we aren’t alone. When we got back, I went to Amazon.com to see if they had any stuffed Piping Plovers I could get the boys and I found the bumper stick in the picture above. It seems nobody likes that Piping Plover!

Time Travelling with Facebook

June 16, 2014 Leave a comment

I’m not going to lie…I love Facebook. I am not even going to put in any qualifiers on that statement. I love Facebook.

nodediagramA few years back, I connected with someone on Facebook whom I had gone to school with for a few years but whom I had not really talked to since fourth grade, when I was a new student at that school. It would have been more than 25 years. However, just the act of exchanging a few pleasantries with this person brought back a flood of memories from fourth grade. Memories that had been held back by the dam of time flooded through my brain and reminded me not just of this person, but of the boy I was back then. Facebook didn’t just reconnected me with this other person, it connected 36 year-old me with nine year-old me.

Catching up with old friends since January 22, 2008 (the day I joined Facebook) has been incredible to me.  To see the faces of people I last saw five, 10, 15, 20 years ago has been amazing and to see their faces in the faces of their children is even more incredible.  Hearing about their successes, getting glimpses into their journeys through life and rediscovering who these people of my past are can be moving and humbling at times, especially when old jokes or a familiar phrase surfaces in a context long remove from high school, college or an old job.

Emotions can run deep when scrolling through Facebook. Acquaintances not thought about in years emerge from the cloud bringing with them long lost and buried memories. Old crushes barely spoken to in high school can still trigger, to borrow a line from Dan Fogelberg, “that old familiar pain”. A “best friend” that has been lost to time and geography who returns with the same wisdom, jokes and words seems to erase the guilt and regret of time and geography.

However, as utterly fantastic as all that has been, for me, that connection to who I was in the past is the part of Facebook phenomenon that has stirred the deepest emotions.  With each friend I have connected with, from different times in my life, I have felt like the connection goes beyond that person…With each friend, I feel like I am connecting with some long lost version of myself. Almost as if in a time machine, I get glimpses of who I was reflected in the comments and faces of old friends.

Throughout our lives, we are constantly reinventing ourselves to adapt to our goals or our needs or the environment and people around us. Different people know a different versions of me, and few, if any, know all versions of me.  Some might know the shy, pimple faced boy who simply hoped to blend in with his high school locker.  Some might know the guy that computerized the stat system at the Baltimore Orioles.  Some might know that guy that ran the newspaper in college.  Some know the daddy of two little boys.

It’s not just about me, either. Each set of friends from those different times are like time capsules, each having locked away a piece of who we are. Through old pictures, old jokes and old stories, those pieces are unlocked and we get to travel back in time to get a clearer picture of ourselves. As more is shared, our friends also get to see a more complete version of who we are. I love it when the people from different times in our lives engage in conversations with each other on Facebook. Perhaps it corrupts the memories we have, but perhaps they get a fairer view. W get to see (and laugh at, perhaps) a glimpse of who our current set of friends were in a time before children. We get to learn more about them and the people and events that shaped them. We get to see how college changed that person we knew from high school. We get to see how much someone has not changed in 20 years by the warm and friendly comments their college friends leave on their wall, and that is a good thing. We get to see how children became adults who now have children of their own.

The thing is that we are all a compilation of all the previous versions of ourselves.  We are, at the present moment, the pinnacle of the evolution of ourselves.  Sure, that will be replaced tomorrow, next week or next month, but the evolution is guaranteed to continue. And Facebook connects all those previous versions of ourselves.

Before Facebook, I had this view of who I was at that moment, but as old friends were found and new ones connected, a clearer picture of who I was and how I got here emerges.  In reconnecting with one friend, I am connected to the frightened fourth grader who was starting at a new school on a long gone sunny fall day who happened to share a moment with them.  Reading the words of a friend from college and I can hear their voice echoing in the college newspaper office as we struggle to meet a deadline.  Seeing a picture of a friend with a broad smile…it’s the same smile from a late night wiffle ball game in a warehouse office, just on an older, wiser face, and it is a reflection of my own smile when late night emergencies were about baseball statistics and not a small child with a stomach ache.

Facebook is connecting me to my future self…it is travelling forward in time, as well. It is connecting me to my grown up sons in the future with their own children. My timeline will become their history and a portal to who their father really is. They will see what was important to me now. They will see my friends and what my friends thought of me. They will be connected to so many of the people that helped shape who their daddy is. They will see an unedited version of me and their mom as we happened. Perhaps it will augment their own memories. Perhaps it will fill the gaps in their memories. Perhaps it will just make them laugh. They will get to see and understand how we thought and viewed those moments that they will have their own memories of.

I tend to mostly only post the good things on Facebook, avoiding posting about some of the struggles (unless it is my Mets fandom) in life, for the most part. I kind of wish I did not avoid it. There could be lessons for them to see how their father dealt with the curve balls that life threw at us. Sure, I could sit with them and advise them and share a story of surviving bad times, but even despite best efforts, it will be an edited version of what really happened. History books never tell the full/real story and 20 years from now, how I dealt with, for example, being laid off will probably be washed out by time and a bad memory.

Facebook has been a time travelling adventure for me and that’s why I love it. Sure, being reminded of those deep deep insecurities I had as a nine year old in a new school was troubling, but it gave me a deeper insight of who I was. When put together with all those years of friends, I get a better sense of myself and my friends.

So, yes, I love Facebook.

Small Miracles on the Diamond

May 21, 2014 2 comments

10363612_10203714795331867_5509403908439764333_nDue to another event happening at the normal Little League field, Matthew’s game on Saturday was moved to a different time at a back up field. All three of my assistant coaches could not make the game because of prior commitments. One of the other fathers on the team happens to be a coach for a tee-ball team as well as the league’s safety officer. He also happens to be an EMT. I’ll call him JM. I asked JM if he could help me out for the game and he happily agreed.

As we begin our game, I notice Ben wandering around the field, talking to a couple of other kids and staying out of trouble. So I returned my attention to positioning my team on the field. A few minutes later, I heard a scream from Ben that still echos in my head and makes my stomach drop. He keeps yelling “DADDY!” at the top of his voice and I start running towards him, as he holds his arm high. I could see his arm even from 50 feet away and I didn’t see any blood, so I assumed he got stung by a bee.

A couple of days later one of the other fathers told me he could see in my face the moment I realized it wasn’t a bee sting. He said he could see in my face the sudden realization that this was much more serious than a bee sting. Ben’s arm was ripped open and I could see…well, I could see way too much that is not suppose to see the light of day. And it was reflected on my face.

JM got to us a moment later, took one look and very calmly asked his wife to get his paramedic bag out of his car and then proceeded to call 911. As my brain lit on fire, JM calmly began asking Ben questions, cleaning the wound and getting it dressed. In the same calmness that you or I might explain to a kid how to field a ground ball, he explained to Ben how the ambulance is going to arrive and each step that they would take after that. As I sat there helpless, knowing the best thing I could do was to stay out of their way, he and his wife calmly took care of Ben.

JM knew exactly what to do as I became confused as to what I should do. Do I leave Matthew with other parents and get in the ambulance with Ben? Do I just pack up the car and meet them at the hospital? In my confusion, I tried to stop the game and send everyone home. After a few moments, I was able to pull myself together a bit and figure out what to do, but it was only because of the calm example that JM was setting.

All the other parents were great, as well. One tended to Matthew as he started crying, afraid for his big brother being loaded into the ambulance and there were multiple offers to watch him for the rest of the day as I went to the hospital. The other dads, I would learn later, pitched in to help the rest of the team finish the game. Offers of help came from all around.

It didn’t end there.

The paramedics smiled as they did their jobs professionally and urgently, even sticking around at the hospital for a few minutes to help keep Matthew distracted. One even took Matthew over to get an ice-pop from the nurses’ station. The cop was extremely helpful and patient as he asked me questions and explained what the ambulance was going to do. The doctors were warm and friendly and I cannot say enough about the effort the nurse put in to get Ben to think of other things besides his arm. I am still overwhelmed at the help I received from so many on Saturday. While ultimately Ben’s injury was not that serious (17 stitches and no major damage to any internal tissue or bone), I feel truly blessed by the way so many came together to help me and my sons out that day.

However, I keep thinking about JM. Due to his job as an EMT, his responsibilities to the league and the fact that he coaches a team himself, he isn’t always at our games. He misses a few innings here and there. So, I can’t help but wonder how different things may have been that day had he not been there to help. In my confusion, would I have made the wrong decisions? What would I have done had he not been there?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve made my faith more personal and internal. I don’t talk much about my belief in God and how I feel his presence in my life. There have been times when that faith has wavered; I’ve never lost it, but I’ve been mostly silent on it for years. The faith has always been there, though, because of moments like this. It’s a small moment in the grand scheme of things. However, in a somewhat weird culmination of events, JM was there, on that field that day, in a position to use his training and skills to help keep a bad situation from becoming worse. Some would call it a coincidence. As a man of faith, I would call it something very different.

Not to mention, everyone that saw his injury remarked that it was a minor miracle that it wasn’t worse. The boy climbed up a rusty chain link fence (in cleats!) and reached over the top to the other side to try to get a grip when his foot slipped. His arm caught the sharp top of the fence. Somehow, he didn’t catch a vein. Somehow, he landed on his feet. Somehow, the muscles in his arm were intact. Somehow, he didn’t break any bones. As a man of faith, I don’t need to ponder the somehow part, I only need to marvel at it.

It’s also a matter of faith in other people. From JM all the way to the hospital and all the way to the flood of emails from other parents after the game. So much kindness and help was shown to us that day that it is overwhelming. People are good and kind and I was reminded of that on Saturday.

And I’ll always remember and be thankful for JM that day.

Anger vs. Happiness

May 14, 2014 Leave a comment

bulldogsmileOn Monday, at his baseball game, Benjamin had a great first at-bat. In his division, now, kids have started pitching, but only until they throw four balls to a batter. Then they go back to the pitching machine. In Ben’s at-bat, he quickly got two swinging strikes before the coaches reminded him that he needs to not swing at bad pitches. He managed to get a 4-2 count (that sounds odd) and they switched to the machine. He fouled off two pitches and then lined a single up the middle.

During his second at-bat, he struck out. After the game, I excitedly talked to him about his first at-bat, but he complained about the second. He was upset because he felt a pitch was too low and shouldn’t have been called a strike. He was angry because he felt cheated. I explained to him that is part of baseball and he has to shake it off. I resisted the urge to agree with him (because I did). He continued to mope. It reminded me of when he was smaller.

I use to lie in bed with him at night and talk to him about his day. He would almost immediately start telling me about the bad things that happened to him at day care (a kid stole a ball, he couldn’t play with S., etc). He focused on the bad things. He was three and four and he only focused on the bad things that happened to him. I spent a lot of time coaxing the good things about the day from him until, one day, he started focusing more on the happy memories of a day.

There was no resolution for his mood after that game. I think he just stopped thinking about it and cheered up by dinner. However, it got me thinking more about stuff I struggle with. Why is it easier to focus on the negatives in a day than on the positives? Why is it easier to be angry than happy? I mentioned this to someone else and he laughed that Buddhist monks and philosophers have been wrestling with that for hundreds or even thousands of years.

I’ve really struggled with this myself, lately. Losing my job has put me into a disposition towards anger and sadness. I want to lash out at the people responsible and I almost crave talking negatively about them. When I’m in a better mindset, I understand this is business and there is little the people I hold responsible could do. Still, I want to be angry.

Side but related note, he came home from school the other day and told me that if you force yourself to smile, the muscles trigger your brain to be happier, according to his teacher. I am so thankful I have him and Matthew around so that I don’t have to force the smile too often.

Yet, there are plenty of positives I can find in all this. I’m not going to go into them here, because they are complex and drift off the point, but they are there. However, I continue to chose to be angry and that doesn’t help anything.

I think the average human needs to feel something. They need those emotions running through them. It helps them feel alive, I think. But why is it easier to chose anger to fill that need for emotion? I tend to think it’s a low hanging fruit. I tend to think happiness is something that only you can truly bring yourself. It is far easier to let other people make you angry than it is to get others to make you happy. I’m not a philosopher, but that’s just my thought.

And even though I feel like I understand this, I still seem to choose anger. However, I don’t feel like a hypocrite when I try to curb these tendencies in Benjamin. I want him to know that he can choose this. He doesn’t have to be a victim of a bad ball/strike call or a bully on the playground. Happiness is something he can choose. He can focus on the positives and dismiss the negatives. It might be too late for me, but I want him to know he can choose to be happy. For the most part I am winning this war with him, but I can only hope I can start winning it with myself.