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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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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.

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.

Growing Up with Crayola

crayola-crayonsEarlier today, I happen to be thinking about Crayola and it really got me thinking about their impact on my life and all the memories, both from my childhood and the kids, that I have around them.  So I thought I’d share some of those thoughts.

One of my earliest memories of school was sitting at my desk and sharing one of those big boxes of Crayola crayons with other kids who’s desks were connected to mine. Despite their being 64 or so Crayons (probably more like 60, because I think we all know a few were always missing and always the exact color you needed) I sat their waiting for a classmate to finish using the Peach colored crayon so that I could finish coloring my picture. I don’t know if I was coloring a family member, a teacher, a friend or myself, but I desperately needed that crayon at that moment. For some reason, that moment is burned in my memory. Of course, it wouldn’t be the last time I’d have to wait for a crayon.

And on the subject of missing crayons, was their anything better than a brand new box of Crayola crayons as a kid? I mean, seriously, all the colors in order and each with a perfect point? I still find myself filled with joy when I open a new box of crayons for Ben and Matt!

When I think back to my childhood and things I played with, I believe Crayola crayons are second only to Legos. However, I remember feeling like a “big kid” when I finally got to use Crayola markers and I think they taught me my first lesson about quality. Whether it was in grammar school or high school, I can remember thinking that when given anything but Crayola markers, I remember being disappointed. There are a lot of poor quality markers and just knew that if they weren’t Crayola, they were likely to be dried up or have a color quality that, for lack of a better word, sucked.

Now that I have children myself, Crayola is central to their interests and learning. My two young sons have had so many interests in their short lives, from dinosaurs to destructive birds to epic space adventures. However, no matter what the subject has been, Crayola has always been the medium that they have used to express enthusiasm. From crayons to markers to Model Magic, Crayola is central to their play and learning. I honestly stand by this. There are a million drawings in our house done with Crayola. There are weird little sculptures made from Crayola Model Magic (and a couple of cute little hand impressions) scattered around our house.

There are just so many times I have heard, “Oh, yeah, come on Matthew, lets get the crayons.” (Ben’s preferred medium is crayon while Matt insists on markers.) And the drawings are of Star Wars characters, Angry Birds, dinosaurs, the New York Giants logo (yeah), each other and so many more things. Their little lives and their little thoughts can be documented in Crayola crayon and marker drawings.

Sure, you can make a case that this could be true of any brand crayon and I’d say that is false. There have been times that the kids have gone to use another brand of crayon and have immediately been disappointed as they are either too waxy to fail to produce the color they expect. It is amazing at how early of an age they have been able to identify quality.

Anyway, I just felt inspired by Crayola today (as I have been so many other times)…I hope you don’t mind me waxing poetic about them (yes, pun intended but I will resist changing the title to “Waxing Poetic About Crayola”).

What does a ball hitting the bat look like?

20140427_124822His uniform seemed like a lead shroud hanging from his thin frame. His hat pulled low, concealing wet eyes. Glove tucked under his arm as he drags himself into the car. He is heartbroken.

My heart breaks for him, also. I’ve been there and it feels like there is nothing worse, not at that age.

Five at-bats. Five strike-outs.

Not even a single saving ping of a foul ball, and my poor son seemed broken.

Baseball sucks. He hates it (and he hasn’t even realized yet that I’ve doomed him to be a Mets fan).

This isn’t the “good” heartbreak that baseball dooms all her fans to.

We talk, we analyze, we get ice cream. He laughs and smiles again and plays video games with his brother.

My heart continues to twist, impaled on that metal bat he dropped in frustration. I want to let him quit…There are still ten more games.

A few days pass, we talk more. With each day, he wants to talk less about it. I feel helpless to help him. Rain pours and prevents me from trying to help him. It seems like he doesn’t want to even try anymore.

Finally, I drag him out. I tell him to set his feet as I told him, but forget everything else I told him. In talking I realize that I am too deep in his head. His coaches (all four of them) are too deep in his head. His friends running the bases are too deep in his head. His own little brother’s success in baseball is too deep in his head.

I know he hears them and they fight with his own, once confident voice.

I throw two dozen balls to him…he misses.

Every.

Single.

One.

His brother takes a turn and he hits half the balls.

We step away from the plate. We have a catch and I let him talk about his video game. I’m dying inside.

I ask if he wants to bat again. He reluctantly says “yes”.

I get a box to help him visualize his strike zone. I get a second bat and have him hit the head of it with his bat. I move it around so he can adjust his swing. He has fun with that.

I take the bucket of balls and back up 15 feet. He misses the first six.

Then I remember his analytic mind. I ask him what he thinks a ball looks like when the bat hits it. He says he doesn’t know. I tell him that we should find out.

“What does a ball hitting the bat look like?”

He hits the next one 50 feet to the driveway.

“What does a ball hitting the bat look like?”

The next ball hits my car.

He is smiling.

“What does a ball hitting the bat look like?”

The next ball almosts hits me.

I back up another 20 feet. He looks nervous again. I go back to five feet in front of him and throw a ball over the plate. He realizes the longer pitched ball is his advantage. I go back to the full distance.

“What does a ball hitting the bat look like?”

The next ball goes back into the driveway.

He hits half of the next two dozen and he is beaming. We call it quits for the night.

Next game. First at-bat. He fouls off a pitch before striking out, but clearly his swing is better.

Next at-bat.

First pitch.

His brother sits next to me, eyes closed, too nervous to watch his older brother.

He hits a slow roller up the third base line.

Safe.

It might as well have been a world series winning home run.

Inning ends with him at third and he runs over to me with a huge smile on his face. Tells me he did it. Tells me he timed the pitches from the pitching machine. Tells me how he is watching the ball hit the bat. Tells me how he isn’t thinking about hitting when he is hitting.

Home run.

Final at bat.

Foul.

Swing and miss.

Foul.

Hard fly ball to left field. Outfielder doesn’t get there.

Ben is almost dancing on first base.

Three-for-five.

Back in the car. I pull my hat low, concealing wet eyes.

Meeting a Yankee

July 3, 2013 Leave a comment

sparkyThose of you who know me, know that I am a big Mets fan. In recent years, I have playfully “trained” Benjamin and Matthew to boo whenever they hear “Phillies” or “Yankees” (“Eagles”, as well). Well, recently, I had the opportunity to meet Sparky Lyle and get his autograph. Having just finished their little league season, I told my sons that Sparky played Major League Baseball. Sparky responded that he had played for the Yankees.

Without missing a beat, Matthew yells out “Boooo Yankees!”

I had never been so mortified and proud at the same time.

Sparky was really cool though and laughed. He turned to Matt and said, “Well, I played for the Red Sox, also, is that okay?”

We then talked a little bit about my sons’ baseball season and he mentioned having been to his grandson’s baseball game the day before. Really nice guy…for a former Yankee and Phillie.

Anguish and Pride on the Little League Field

April 17, 2013 Leave a comment

wpid-1331352768668.jpgI’ve had some tough times as a father in the seven plus years that I’ve been on this wild journey. There have been some emotional moments for so many different reasons. However, one of the most emotional moments happened for me this past Saturday on a baseball diamond.

I am coaching Benjamin and Matthew’s coach-pitch Little League team. Matthew probably could have used another year in tee ball, but Ben was definitely ready to move up. So, we moved Matt up as well so that I could coach both of them again. Now the rules of coach-pitch are pretty simple. Every kid gets to bat in an inning with their coach pitching to them. Each kid is suppose to get seven pitches and if they don’t get a hit, they are out. That said, the coaches have an agreement to continue pitching, as long as it is reasonable, until they get a hit.

When Matthew came up for his first at-bat, he had his silly face on, giggling at me pitching to him. His early swings were wild and all over the place, except near the ball. He eventually settled in, but still missing badly. This went on for a long time. I must have thrown him 20 or so pitches and it became clear that he was pushing too hard and I had to make the very difficult decision to call him out and send him to the bench. I believe I made the right decision. There may come a time when I need to send another kid back to the bench and I can’t do that if I am not willing to send my own son back. Plus, I could sense that he was starting to press and the other team behind me was getting restless. It was a difficult decision, but one I would do again.

Well, as he walked back to the bench and took off his helmet, I could see him trying to be tough and not cry. But he was upset. Andrea went over to him and then he started crying. My heart broke like I had never felt it before. It is a moment of such anguish for me, that even thinking about it now, I want to cry. After our half inning was over and my team took the field, I went over and hugged him as he sobbed some more, but I think I may have felt worse than him. I let him sit on the bench a little longer and Andrea gave him a little food and water, while I stood on the field with my hat pulled low on my head to hide my wet eyes. Eventually, he cheered up and came back on the field with a smile, almost like nothing had happened.

The next inning, as his at-bat approached, my nerves kicked in and I felt like I couldn’t bear it again. When he did come up, we gave him a smaller bat and he seemed more determined. The sillies were gone and he looked like he was going to do everything he could to not go back to the bench. I…I was a mess and could barely pitch to him.

Before his tenth pitch, however, he managed to hit a little roller up the third base line and he was safe at first. All the parents watching erupted in cheers and were yelling congratulations to him, while I choked back tears of joy and pride (Tom Hank’s character must have never coached his kids in baseball when he said there was no crying in “League of Their Own”). I was so happy for him and I could tell he was equally happy. After the inning was over, I gave him one of the biggest hugs I could muster without crushing his little body. He simply fixed his hat and was ready to play some more.

It is amazing with kids how such a tough moment can be suddenly turned around. And, it is amazing how our kids, even at the age of six, can be so much tougher than us.

In a footnote, the next day we practiced batting in the backyard for a while and he started hitting well. When we played our second game, he came to bat and carefully lined up his feet and was determined again. In his first at bat, he hit the 10th pitch, in his second, he hit the fifth pitch and in his third at bat, he hit the first pitch…Watch out David Wright!