A Hard Story to Tell-Part 2

A Hard Story to Tell  is a work of creative nonfiction that will be released in serial format. This is Part 2. Click here to read Part 1.

For M.–

Two years before Chase started choking, Haley, unfamiliar with the theories of gravity and buoyancy waddled up to the edge of a pool deck, took an innocent, unassuming step and sunk like a little stone.

Before I could spring my hands loose from my pockets, Cindy was in the pool fetching Haley and with my hands just barely out of my pockets Cindy was standing on the pool deck, holding Haley both dripping and shaking like leaves in the heart of a hurricane.

If you were passing by, you wouldn’t have thought much of me and my inertia. I guess, we’d like to believe in moments of peril, when we are wedged into moments of necessary decisiveness, of life and death, especially when our children are involved, we will act with great valor and courage like they do in the movies. Or at least that is what we want to believe.

Chase is choking.

Cindy screams. I grab him by his shoulder and spin him around.

Should I call 911? Should I call 911?

Breath Chase! Breath!

Should I call 911?

Come on breath!

Haley creeps into the kitchen. Her little eyes are wide and blue and confused. And she’s shaking like she’s on the pool deck again. “Death” has not penciled itself into her vocabulary book, yet her eyes announce that the definition is felt and somehow understood.

I smack Chase between his shoulders.

He’s choking! My son is choking!

There’s a rush of heat. The oven door is closed but I assume it’s open. And I assume we are stuffed inside and the heat stings my eyes and boils my organs and the blue ink on my hands, the stains of my labor, is starting to run across the folds of my fingers.

Hurry–!

515 Stonybrook Drive–

Hurry—!

Cindy drops the phone, looks at me and sprints out the front door.

I slam Chase’s back again. A hard, heavy slam charged with violent intent. Haley is in front of me. Half-covering her eyes. Afraid to watch. Afraid to look away.

I slam his back again.

Come on bud!

Outside.The rain pounds our little roof. God is somewhere, far away, tipping buckets of water on us. Move inside. The sharpness of the rain is muffled and there comes a silence that is sudden and fat like something you could almost feel, like the hand of God when he’s not far away tipping buckets of water on you.

It’s strange the things you think in moments of sheer panic. When thought, which usually unfurls like a finely packaged sheet is suddenly working in hot quick machine-gun bursts. This is a hard story to tell because even now, two years later, I can’t forget the bursts–a black limousine, a little blue suit, yellow roses, a silver casket and a huddle of balloons rising like rainbows, then drifting and vanishing in the brilliance of a pure blue sky.

Hold on buddy!

Chase is deflating in my arms.

Don’t let go buddy! Don’t let go!

I told you earlier, this story has a happy ending. In fact, as I tell you this now, Chase in the backyard. He’s swinging on a swing. Breathing. Smiling. Rising and returning to us.  But it’s still a hard story to tell. Because imagination can be an absolute killer. Because sometimes when I walk the yard, I see that swing empty. No promise of motion or force. Just hanging, waiting for his body to fill its seat. And I find myself fighting tears, thinking of the emptiness he would have left.

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I pull Chase tight against to my chest, his back to my belly and wedge my right fist between his ribs, cup it with my left and it barely fits and I worry about hurting him.

A few years earlier I spent a Saturday afternoon at a Red Cross site learning safety procedures. The instructor was an older woman with thick ankles and serious eyes. She told us that if you ever had to perform the heimlich on a child don’t be afraid to break their ribs. Consider it collateral damage.

“You may have to hurt the child to save the child.”

The air is thick and wet and boiling my organs.

I pump my fist between his little ribs.

Nothing.

“Hurt the child to save the child.”

I pump my fist deep into my son’s chest, splitting his ribs, hitting the important things inside.  Nothing.

“Hurt the child to save the child.”

Haley is watching and not watching. Cindy is gone. God is gone. I kiss my son on his cheek and whisper, “I’m sorry. I love you buddy.”

~~~

Be sure to check back next Friday for Part 3 of A Hard Story to Tell.

If you enjoyed this serial story, please share with your circle of humans!

Also checkout “An Incident on North 20th Street”. This is another work of creative nonfiction. “An Incident…” recounts the time I found myself alone on a Philadelphia city with my favorite author, Tim O’Brien.

An Incident on North 20th Street

 

A Hard Story to Tell-Part 1

A Hard Story to Tell is a work of creative nonfiction that will be released in serial format.This is Part 1.

For F.–

Start here: Cindy is in the kitchen twirling along the counter’s edge– cracking eggs, whipping batter. The oven is on. She is smiling. And all is well in suburbia.

Most of this story is set in our old house. Our first house. Where our wedding picture hung above the fireplace. Where we made Christmas ornaments together. Where we carried with care all three of our children home from the hospital. The little house was where our life, our family took roots. It’s where our big dreams and big plans, gained tangible mass and weight.

familyAs the weatherman predicted, it’s raining and on cue I rush the scene, just before 4 p.m., through the front door with a messenger bag hanging on my shoulder and blue ink stains on my hands.

Haley and Chase are off stage in the living room. They’re doing what kids do after school– eating lollipops, ignoring their parents, watching Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Dylan is further offstage sleeping down the hall.

I drop my soggy messenger bag by the front door. It’s filled with my senior’s final high school essays– ever. Their assignment was to write a series of personal narratives detailing memorable moments from the ordeal known as high school.

“Smells good in here.”

“Of course it does!”

Cindy smiles and I smile. I move to her. Hug her, kiss her cheek and swipe a finger full of cake batter from the bowl.

If you’ve been following my blog or you’ve had the privilege/misfortune of having me as a teacher, you know I love telling stories. In fact, I’ve been criticized by my superiors for telling too many stories. But I can’t apologize. I enjoy the whole intimate process too much: the bending of words, the fleshing of characters, the building of suspense, the playing with structure, the bond that is forged between audience and storyteller. I’m addicted to it all.

Yet there are some stories I hesitate to tell. This is one of those stories. Not because it’s spiked with embarrassment or regret or failure. In fact, this is a success story.  I’m a hero. In fact, you may, if you stick with this story until the end– you may look at me with favor, with admiration.

Even still, this is a hard story to tell.

Because in order to tell it properly, I had to relieve an experience I want to forget. Because every time I tell it, I feel fragile and am reminded that choices and consequences are a package deal, that life can seem so certain, as if galvanized with such unbreakable stuff, then suddenly splinter and split like driftwood.

And every time I tell this story, the smell cupcakes trigger the shrill of Cindy’s razored screams.

I lean against the counter and Cindy and I talk about work. How students never listen. How June is a educational wasteland. How teachers are not babysitters and deserve more money, more respect, more of everything.

Cindy opens the oven and a hot breath sweeps across the stage. The rain quickens, thunders down and Cindy and I both look upward sure that God is emptying his change jar on our little roof.

Everything is normal about the scene. As predicted, it’s raining. There’s cupcakes rising in the oven. It’s Tuesday. I’m smiling. Cindy is smiling. Offstage, in the living room, our children are eating lollipops, smiling and watching Mickey Mouse two-step with Pluto. Further offstage our youngest child sleeps.

But that’s how stories often begin. Things are normal and then they are not. It’s that simple.

Chase, whose 4th birthday is two days away and whose last day of preschool is tomorrow, enters the scene without a lollipop, holding that look every parent knows. That look that vacuums out your insides and leaves just a quick streak of hot panic in your parental chest as your boy’s mouth is strained painfully wide, as if trying to unhinge itself.

Your child is choking.

There’s a trapdoor under his nose letting everything in and letting nothing out.  And in his eyes unfold the fear of a thousand infant crucifixions on what was scheduled to be a normal afternoon.

An egg waddles across the counter and falls– until it explodes across the floor. God is busy making more rain. Cindy sees her son, her blue-eyed boy choking and screams.  Her scream annunciates everything I can’t say.

Get help now.

Do something now.

Oh fuck sweet God.

~~~

Be sure to check back next Friday for Part 2 of A Hard Story to Tell.

If you enjoyed this serial story, please like on Facebook and share with your circle of humans!

The Power of Creativity Podcast Episode #3: An Interview with Dr. Jack DiGiovanna

The Power of Creativity- Episode #3

I’ve had this growing curiosity to learn how the world of science, medicine and rehabilitation uses, manipulates and demands creativity.  Conveniently, one of my oldest friends just happens to be a world-renown scientist.

In this episode I interview my long-time friend, skinny jean advocate, scientist and genomics researcher Dr. Jack DiGiovanna.

Jack has studied and conducted research in both America and throughout Europe. He has traveled the world, delivering lectures on genomics research, neuroprosthetics and has had his research cited over 600 times.

jack-digiovanna-headshot-1024x683Jack currently works for Seven Bridges Genomics in Boston, which was recently recognized by the MIT Technology Review as one of the Top 50 smartest companies in the world.

Throughout this episode, we discuss how and why creativity is crucial in the medical research field, why, even after living all over the world, Jack still loves his hometown, why humans are delusional and the most important lesson Jack’s late father ever taught him.

Takeaways

  • Compartmentalizing your problems is an effective way of relieving stress, over-coming challenges and being more productive.
  • Even if you create distance between yourself and your hometown, your hometown is still a vital component of your identity. Your hometown taught you about people and relationships. It’s the initial setting of your narrative.
  • Even though we know better, and we’ve heard the story countless times, we still struggle to understand that material possessions do not provide lon-term happiness.
  • Fatherly wisdom remains long after the father is gone.
  • Creativity is seeing solutions that other don’t see.
  • Don’t ever be ashamed to ask “why?”. In fact,  having the courage to ask “why” is often the first step to an amazing journey.

Contact Jack at…

Twitter

www.jackdigiovanna.com

 

 

An Incident on North 20th Street

For D.–

If I had to offer you a hardened number, I would say 30.

I would say 30 uninterrupted feet was the space between me and author Tim O’Brien, one of my few living literary heroes. His groundbreaking Vietnam novel, The Things They Carried  inspired me to pursue a writer’s life. His novel entertained me, challenged me and forged my ideologies on writing and further reinforced my romantic belief that stories have the medicine to heal.

I’m standing on the North 20th Street sidewalk with a nasty wind snapping at my shoulders. Holding copy of O’Brien’s novel in my hand, I watch Tim watch the smoke from his cigarette curl and vanish in the cold March air. I take a step toward him. 29 feet.

empty_street_by_5haman0id-d4ltoex

A Septa bus turns the corner and chugs by. It’s Philadelphia. It’s the fifth largest city in America. 1.5 million residents and no one is around. As I tell you this, the night has all the fuzziness of a dream. The lines blurred. The sounds muffled.  But it’s not a dream. It’s real. And it’s me and it’s Tim O’Brien, author of arguably the most important modern novel, alone together, on the same street. A giddy heat rushes up me chest. I step forward. 28 feet.

It’s 2010. I’m 30 years old. So far, my life has gone according to plan. I married my high school sweetheart. We bought a little house in the suburbs. We have a blonde hair, blue eyed daughter. I don’t know it,  but I’m tinkering a tin mythology.  I’m not building a life of passion and risk. My life is orderly. My life makes sense.

At 22, after he had graduated from Macalester College with a degree in Political Science,  O’Brien’s plan was smashed. He was drafted into the Vietnam War. Courtesy of the United States government,  Tim O’Brien was shuttled from the Minnesota prairies to jungles of Vietnam where he took orders, conducted ambushes, burned villages, kicked corpses and listened to final screams of men who became suddenly aware of the absolute and unflinching truth that they were about to die.

O’Brien had fought his unwanted war and now some 40 years later he’s staring into an immense Philadelphia sky, smoking a cigarette and still fighting, still trying to make sense of it all.

tttc1

Of course, I didn’t know it that night, but my unwanted war was still some three years away.  I was three years away from  MRI tubes and CAT scans and confused doctors. From the fine print of life insurance policies and mornings full of medication. I was three years away from discovering that writing would become my life raft, my means of survival. A vehicle for traversing my personal terrain in an attempt to pin down certain truths before it was too late. I step forward. 27 feet.

The wind snaps again and Tim snuffs out his cigarette and sits on a cement step. I’m holding his book and thinking about how to introduce myself like a self-respecting man, not some gushy fanboy.

It’s peculiar. I didn’t read or write much in high school.  I mean, I secretly liked reading and writing but I had sports to play and girls to talk to. And yet, for no good reason,  I went to college, declared myself an English major and hoped, which seemed much easier to do in those days, one day I might become a writer.

I now understand my life has been a subway ride to this March night. Meeting new faces, accumulating memories. Gliding along, aimlessly watching miles click by, never really in control, never full-heartily doing the thing that I really wanted to do. Never believing I had a story worth telling. Worth reading. 26 feet.

It’s funny how memory works.

How a circumstance, a smell, a passing glance can rip a chord– cause the past to sputter, growl, zoom into the present, only to stall in your brain in both odd and ordinary hours. 26 feet away from Tim O’Brien I was suddenly reminded of something my college journalism professor, Dr. Breslin, told me some eight years prior.

Earlier that evening I sat in the Philadelphia Public Library’s auditorium listening to Tim, with a gravel voice and steely stare speak eloquently about writing, the haunting nature of memory, the Vietnam War, the ambiguity of truth, how imagination helps him cope and how storytelling saved his life.

I’m 30 years old. The writer seeds are in me, under the soil,  but I’m not tending to them. I busy living an uninspired life. Tim’s words, his stories help but I’m not ready. The seeds are rooting, slowly, still five years away for producing fruit. Fruit that will ripen when my life spoils. When doctors tell me I might die soon.

Tim finishes, the auditorium claps and I exit the library. I walk along Vine Street, turned up North 20th street. The library is on my right. Author Tim O’Brien steps out a side door of the library, lights up a cigarette. He smokes slowly under a yellow lamp light and watches the smoke curl and disappear into the cold night sky.

I freeze. It feels like a odd, cold dream. One of my heroes stands 30 uninterrupted feet from me. I smile and take a step forward. Then another.

I hear the voice of my college professor warning me to never interview my heroes.

“Why?

She smiles, walks out from behind her desk and says, “Because you’re never ready to interview your heroes.”

Tim sits down on a little cement step and snubs out his cigarette. I take another step forward. Then another.  After the war he didn’t know what to do. So he wrote. He found solitude and hope and love and redemption in words. It’s not Vietnam, but my private apocalypse awaits– gnawing at the edges of my future days.

At 26 feet,  I submit. I’m not ready. Not yet.

I tuck The Things They Carried into my messenger bag. I retreat. 27. 28. Tim stares into the night sky. I have nothing to say to him. Nothing to provoke meaningful, authentic conversation. Nothing he would appreciate.

29. 30.

I turn away and walk along North 20th Street. With shoulders hunched, I leave Tim O’Brien behind, probably forever, yet forever carrying him with me.

I’m walking into a darkness. I’m three years from the start of my unwanted war and five years away from becoming a writer. I’m still five years away from having something real, something authentic to say to Tim O’Brien, to say to you.

Be well,

Jay

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5 Reasons Why Springsteen’s Thunder Road is Your Life Right Now

On Friday night I’m leaving the kids at home and taking my best girl to see, hear and witness the incomparable Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.

If you haven’t heard, the 67 year old Boss, is currently playing 4 hour musical marathons. Electric sets fused with 30 plus songs spanning 40 plus years of musical endurance.

bruce3

To honor Bruce’s current American tour, his upcoming biography and my wife and I’s first date in a really long time, I would like to explore one of his most enduring songs–Thunder Road.

Thunder Road is my favorite song. Period. At age 24, Springsteen wrote a near 5 minute song so wrought with maturity and human complexity that it rivals great works of literature written by much older people.

TR’s protagonist is locked in an emotional vice, he’s fixed at a personal crossroads, he needs to make a decision and he has make it now! (Can anything be more adult then that?)

TR’s timelessness is its themes. Themes that never cease. In fact, they only gain more mass and weight as time passes.

In its explosive, defiant conclusion, TR is often consider a young person’s song. I disagree. It’s not a young person or an old person’s song. It’s an ageless song. One, at its thematic core, is the most human song I know.

The Need for Companionship

Don’t turn me home again
I just can’t face myself alone again
Don’t run back inside
Darling you know just what I’m here for

It’s one of the great human contradictions– we crave companionship yet we enjoy isolation. And in life, we need others to survive yet only inside ourselves can we find the seeds of happiness and meaning.

Running from the Past

There were ghosts in the eyes
Of all the boys you sent away

Move to a new city. Make new friends. Invest in a gold toilet.Win your bowling league. No matter what you do, what you accomplish, you will never put enough miles between the present and the past.

Finding your True Self

Well I got this guitar
And I learned how to make it talk

Adults are notorious for disbanding dreams and living an unfulfilled, uninspired life. Like him or not, Springsteen has spent his entire life chasing down a dream, asking questions, pushing buttons, pursing passion all in the name of personal evolution. And that– you’ve got to respect.

The Drama of Choice

And my car’s out back
If you’re ready to take that long walk
From your front porch to my front seat
The door’s open but the ride it ain’t free

You’re reading this and you’re standing at a figurative crossroads (…hopefully not a literal one). As TR’s protagonist understands– we’ve all got choices to make and we need to make them now. One of the great tragedies of the human condition is that we will never be short on choices.

The Promise of Better Days

It’s town full of losers
And I’m pulling out of here to win
In the grand, defiant conclusion of the song we hear our protagonist triumphantly announce he has made a choice. If only we could have his confidence and moxie, we may find the courage to take risks and see the future not as a place of fearful unknowns but a place bursting with possibility and aliveness.
 road
For me, Thunder Road remains an empty church. It’s big and grand. It’s finely detailed and yet it remains mysterious and haunting while being strangely intimate, strangely comforting.

Be well,

Jay

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How I Avoided Parental Burnout this Summer

Summertime parenting is the worst.

The kids are always around–bored, sweaty, and always buzzing with energy.

In those glorious B.C. summers (Before Children), Cindy and I would sleep until 10, split English muffins with Kelly Ripa, take naps at noon and share a frozen cocktail at 4.

But eight years later and three children later the landscape of our lazy summers have changed considerably. We’ve gone from sipping frosty Blue Moons in the shade to crawling  head-first into clammy, germ filled moon-bounces to fish out one of our crying kids.

jazzyjefffreshprince
“Summer, Summer, Summertime/ Time to sit back and unwind.” Dammit no it’s not Will! You and Jazz lied to us!!!

Once a hammock of relaxation, our summers are now one long parenting triathlon, a Tough Mudder of exploding juice boxes, forced timeouts and deep breaths.

This summer however, I did find some relief. You could find me being constructively selfish every morning between 6:15 and 7:30 exercising, writing, reading and listening to music.

Constructive selfishness

In the waning days of every school year one of my final lectures explores the concept of  constructive selfishness– attending to your own needs while remaining grounded and self-aware. I tell my graduating seniors that this is their time to focus on their goals, dreams and desires. However, it’s important that during this constructively selfish journey to understand that their choices have consequences, that they are still apart of a greater community, they  have a responsibility to the world and that constructive selfishness does not afford them the right to be an asshole.

Destructive Selfishness

It’s pretty simple. You cut lines, steal from children, don’t carry your dinner plate to the sink, spit indoors, don’t flush and don’t hold doors. You always pick the movie and you recline 40 minutes into your 14 hour flight to Barcelona. Your needs, pleasure, and desires supersede everyone and everything else on planet Earth. In short, you’re an asshole.

A Case for the Selfish Parent

On our final day of summer vacation with our kids, Cindy and I dropped the cretins off at the babysitters, got massages at Hand and Stone,  enjoyed low-calorie salads and green tea at Panera Bread and went shopping for chinos at Banana Republic ( Can we be anymore lamely suburban?)

Later that day, while scrolling through Facebook I saw plenty of good parents posting pictures with their smiling children at the zoo, on the beach, in a pool on their last day of summer together.

Were Cindy and I being selfish? You’re damn right. Did we feel parental guilt? Nope. Does that make us assholes? Maybe… but at least we’re relaxed assholes.

I believe being constructively selfish makes you a better parent, a better person. Even though it sounds all Saint Kathrine Drexel– absolute selflessness is dangerous business. Look, I love my kids ( as much as you love yours) but parental burnout is real. I’ve felt it, seen it and heard it.  (Next time you’re driving near a Dodge Caravan that has those stick family decals on the back window, turn down your radio and listen closely… you will most certainly hear the blood-curling shrieks of parental burnout.)

As parents, our fundamental job is to care for others. And even though it’s necessary and healthy and humbling to put others needs first I’ve learned that devoting time to yourself gives you more energy to devote yourself to others. It’s a beautiful reciprocal.

Yes, selflessness is admirable but it’s not sustainable. And parenting is all about sustainability– especially in those dog days of summer.

Be well,

Jay

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