How to Save a Marriage

The following post is the final entry of the The February Project: Love and Marriage, a self-imposed month long writing project on love and marriage.

“After all the romance and celestial promises of the initial courtship, love becomes a lifetime of small moments that add up to make something enormous.” from Taking Notes: A Love Story


It was romantic as hell.

We were finally alone on a beach house front porch.

The sun was rolling away from us and the sky made grand commitments to the pinks and oranges that stroke only finest of summer evenings.

My wife sat across from me. I took her hand.

The kids were somewhere inside, doing God knows what.

It was quiet, just the two of us and the distant break of the Atlantic Ocean along the soft New Jersey sands.

I admitted I don’t say “I love you” enough. I told her she deserves to hear it more. Eight years of marriage, three children later and I promised that I would tell her I love her everyday, for the rest of our lives.

We held a look long enough to vaguely remember what life was like before children until one of them threw open the screen door and complained about something someone was doing  inside.

We both said we would be right there and the child waited, then stomped, turned, and disappeared. This was our vacation. Our moment. The rolling sea, the tender sky. There was no need to rush. It was a scene that unfurled on the silver screen of our imaginations when we 16 years old and first began to conjure up a life together.

Like any new resolution, I was all in– with energy and verve and boyish enthusiasm. I planned out how I would do it, slip it casually into a conversation or let her believe I had forgotten about my promise only to surprise her with an “I love you” as she was falling asleep.

And for a few weeks I was true to my promise.

But, at some point I missed a day. Not that I didn’t love my wife anymore, I just failed to think of someone other than myself.

And as promises go–failing to keep them one day, made it easier to forget about them the next.

Until one day my wife confronted me half joking, half serious, ” Why did I stop saying, I love you? Do you not love me anymore?”

I stuttered and stumbled.

I said I was sorry and promised, from here on out I would say, “I love you” everyday for the rest of our lives.

And so as I did for a more few days. And then, as promises go…

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

My parents are cruising into their 40th year of marriage.

I say cruising because they make marriage look effortless. Like a joyride. A Sunday afternoon cruise with the top down and the radio up.

The key to their marriage is a little ritual they’ve engaged in every evening, when one of them returns home from work.

After a long day, when they’re finally reunited, no matter the condition of the household, now matter the company sitting at the kitchen table– the first thing they do is kiss.

A moment to recognize each other. A moment that is just theirs. A moment to honor their relationship

It’s such an amazing moment, especially considering the anarchy of weekday nights when the kids squeal about the house, when dinner boils on the stove and the phone is ringing and work is emailing and there’s a mouse loose in the pantry and the bills spew across the kitchen table.

Life, and all of its obligations, demands so much attention that sometimes you forget you’re married.

Days pile on to days.

The chores and responsibilities mount.

There’s only enough time to breath and react and the thought of thinking about someone else is simply too much.

So marriage makes strangers out of us.

Our spouse becomes a coworker, one who we occasionally bump into at the copy machine or the coffee pot. Things get awkward. There’s a head nod, then a slight smile before you retreat to your own business.

How do we avoid such fate? Like you’re always commuting from one draining job to the next.

My parents proved it starts with simple, sincere acknowledgement. They did it, and continue to do it, with a kiss.

They proved that marriage only works when you’re willing to connect and invest your attention in the smallest of moments.

I tried saying, “I love you” to my wife everyday and failed. Failed to create a daily moment each was just ours.

Why?

Because it’s hard. Because it takes real endurance, real commitment to honor your marriage everyday. Because sometimes I take marriage for granted.

In the throes of life, when life is not romantic as hell, the health of a marriage hinges on those little, private moments that you create for one another. It’s in those moments where you reconnect, rediscover each other all over again.

40 years of marriage proves so.

Be well.

Jay

For the Philadelphia Sports Fan, Championship Games are Generational

When I was a kid my dad use to carry me through the silver turnstiles that guarded the concrete spaceship known as Veterans Stadium so we could watch bad baseball, together.

In the mid 1980’s the Phillies were a bad baseball team.

So bad that if you went to the supermarket and bought an 8 pack of Phillies Franks you’d have a plastic ticket soaked in hot dog juice for an upcoming home game waiting for you.

But to avoid buying another ticket (or another pack of hot dogs), dad and I shared a ticket. Which meant he would hand the usher one ticket, smile and carry me into the game.

When we got to our seat, even though there were always plenty of empty seats in the Vet, I sat on dad’s lap cracking peanuts, arguing balls and strikes with the umpire and cheering on Juan Samuel.

Veterans Stadium (The Vet), Philadelphia

Since those hapless baseball games, that marked so many hapless seasons, I have always thought of watching sports as a father-son bonding event. Like fishing or shaving. But with sports you could high-five, laugh and show emotion in a very nonthreatening, masculine way.

For Philadelphia sports fans, a championship game is a generational event.

This Sunday the Philadelphia Eagles are playing in the Superbowl LII.

Their first Superbowl since 2004. Before that, 1980. They have never won the big game.

Since the Eagles advanced to the Superbowl two weeks ago, dad and I have crafted armchair game plans for the Birds. If they run the ball, they will win. If they attack Tom Brady and his 40 year old legs, if they force him to move, they will win.

By mid-Superbowl week my Superbowl excitement reached a-kid-on-Christmas Eve level.

At 6:30 am I awoke my children with a Superbowl countdown. A flick of the bedroom light switch followed by a slow-clap and a thunderous reminder, “TIME TO GET UP!!! 3 MORE DAYS UNTIL THE  SUPERBOWL BABY!!!”

I think about the game while brushing my teeth. I think about the game while driving home to and from work. I think about the game while my wife is talking to me.

There’s a constant swirling in my gut, electricity zipping up my bones as if my Bingo numbers were just called and I’m bouncing up the aisle about to claim my prize wondering, “Are grown men suppose to get this excited?”

I made a Superbowl playlist on Spotify stacked with AC/DC, Rage Against the Machine and the obligatory songs from the “Rocky” soundtrack.

I’ve already picked out my seat on the couch for Sunday.

Scoff at my zest, but championship games are rare for Philadelphia teams.

Since the Eagles last played in the Superbowl in 2004, I have grown up a bit. I got married, bought a house and fathered three children–a daughter and two sons.

(My boys have bought into the Superbowl mania, my daughter would rather watch Fuller House on Netflix.)

And so if growing up is simply a matter of perspective, I realize, in the rush of life, how important these father-son experiences are.

I’ve learned that watching the big game with your dad and sons is a small moment that extends well beyond final whistle. It’s a seminal chapter in the father-son novel.

My dad turned down Superbowl party invitations from his friends. He told me he had to watch the game with his sons and his grandchildren.

He told me that there’s just something special about having your grandson on your lap, cheering on your team together. He then reminded me the big game doesn’t come to Philadelphia often.

Like all Eagle fans I crave, I pine, I yearn for a Superbowl win. A win that would knit wounds knifed by years of sports futility.

So on Sunday you will find me on the couch with my dad and my sons rooting for Eagles, together.

And even though the mighty Vet is now just parking lot the lessons learned during those hapless Phillies games remain, as I sat with my dad, rooting for our team, and in subtle ways, rooting for each other.

Go Birds!

Be well,

Jay

What my 7 year old son and a friend with a terminal illness said about happiness

I’d like to thank the Lexus “December to Remember” commercial for fueling my recent obsession with happiness.

You know the commercial: On a perfect snow sparked morning a well groomed man finds a new Lexus topped with a big red bow trophied in his sprawling driveway. The man smiles then hugs and kisses the hood of his new toy as his tall, attractive wife and their beautiful blue-eyed children stand nearby and smile and dote and radiate with plastic happiness as a voice tells you how easy and affordable it is for you to own a sleek, well-equipped Lexus.

The message is simple and clear — If you buy or lease a Lexus this holiday season you can buy or lease happiness.

Now that’s a good looking family…but it’s an even better looking Santa Claus!

The commercial then gives way to the football game my 7 year old son and I are watching. We’re curled together on the couch, sharing a blanket. It’s a rare scene, especially for December. My son, the Energizer Bunny, is almost always moving, always playing. And with the promise of Christmas so close, his energy seems even more boundless. But at this moment, he is still, as if someone removed his batteries, and I know this might just be my only time to ask him.

“Hey Chase can I ask you something?”

The quarterback drops back to pass. Chase delays his response long enough where I think he’s ignoring me. The quarterback completes a 12 yard pass to a receiver who’s shoved out of bounds by a streaking defender. First down.

The teams huddle and the referee sets the football at the line of scrimmage and without unlocking his eyes from the television looking Chase says, “Okay.”

A little surprised he was even listening, I nod and smile and ask, “What makes you happy?”

The quarterback drops back to pass again and Chase turns and looks thoughtfully at me, as thoughtfully as a 7 year old can look, smiles and says “ I guess…spending time with you and mom.”

“Really?”

“Yeah like when we all went to the movies last week. That was fun.”

He smiles.

I smile.

Touchdown.

I didn’t want to text my friend. She’s dying.

My friend Deb Dauer was diagnosed with ALS in September of 2013. Before her diagnosis, she was an elementary school teacher in the district where I teach and an early supporter of Write on Fight on. Now she’s chronicling her inspiring fight with ALS on her blog Not Gonna Be a Debbie Downer. 

Though my interactions with Deb have been mostly through email and Facebook, I feel a kinship with her. We are parents and teachers and writers who, for better or worse, wear our hearts on our sleeve.

I felt like an asshole bothering Deb with my pretentious existential crisis. I mean, she’s warring with one of the most hellacious diseases we’ve never cured. Clearly, she’s busy.

But the question lingered then gnawed. What would someone with a terminal illness say about happiness? 

It took me almost an hour editing and revising and second-guessing and ego-checking before I finally braved up and sent the following text…

“What makes you happy? Lately I’ve been obsessing over natural vs. plastic happiness and would value your sentiments. But please, no obligations. Be well.”

True to her awesome self, Deb responded with…

“What I’ve found that it is connections with other people that really make me happy. And in turn time and experiences with them.”

In the heart of the Lexus “December to Remember “ sales event Chase and Deb confirmed what I already knew, what most of us know — that relationships are the fruits of happiness. A 7 year old boy, a dying woman cemented such truth — we are fragile and finite but in relationships we find strength, we experience forever.

Why is such simplicity so hard to understand? Why do we foolishly think that one more material possession will sprout the happiness we so desperately desire?

And so if growing up is a just matter of perspective, it’s curious to think that we’ll spend so much pain, energy and money trying to realize what we knew all along.

Be well,

Jay

PS–Checkout this 6 minute feature on the Write-a-thon! I want to thank all my colleagues and students who made this awesome event possible.

The Day the Girls Were Given Tampons

Our sixth grade teachers divide us into two groups: boys and girls.

In the boys’ room, the teacher wobbles behind her podium and says words like penis, testicles, erection and sperm and I struggle to breath. I choke on my laughter. My face grows hot and my insides hurt and I’m pretty sure I’m going to die. But it’s okay. Because it’s just so damn funny.

When the teacher runs out of funny words to say, she hustles through the classroom doorway, into the hall, to either cry or laugh, and since we’re boys, and now we’re unsupervised boys — we explode. We laugh and squeal and shake and cry and whimper because it’s just so damn funny.

For 12 year old boys, the word testicles tops the list of funny words. Especially, when your teacher says it — testicles. And if I’m being honest, at 37, the word testicles still makes me laugh.

As girls file back in the classroom with bowed heads, silent, like they just witnessed an execution our laughter tinkles out. Each girl carries tightly a white wand and I think how unfair it is that they got a prize and we didn’t. But maybe we would’ve been awarded a prize if we hadn’t howled like hairless wolves.

A girl with shoulder length auburn hair pinned back with butterfly berets slides into the desk in front of me. I tap on her shoulder. At first she doesn’t turn so I tap again and wait and before I’m about to tap again she turns and levels her eyes into mine, “What?”

“What kind of prize did you get?”

“It’s not a prize.”

“Well what is it?”

“It’s a tampon.”

“A what?”

“A tampon. You know, for when I get my period.”

I have no idea what she’s talking about.

Naturally, men want titles. Titles that will raise both pinkies and eyebrows at cocktail parties. Titles that will earn free drinks. Titles that will get the girl.

As I toiled through my 20’s and into my early 30’s I felt that the most important titles a man could collect were titles like CEO, Supervisor, Manager, Principal, General, Admiral, Chief, Coach, Quarterback.

In our defense, society has taught men that to prove our worth we need to collect titles the way we collect imported cars or empty bottles of imported beer (depending on a man’s financial situation).

For girls, the title of mother comes painfully yearly. They menstruate, wonder why, and a soft, older voice explains they’re now biologically ready to become a mother. About the same time, the same voice explains that mother is the most important title a girl will ever know.

Further cementing the gravity of mother, high school girls endure home economics and child development classes and are evaluated on their ability to care for a plastic baby who cries when it’s hungry or a sack of sugar (depending on a school district’s financial situation).

I find it interesting and, somewhat sad, that boys are not offered classes on fatherhood.

Boys are often evaluated on their ability to build and destroy things. To give commands. To take orders. But boys are rarely, if ever, praised for their ability to nurture, care and empathize.

Maybe that’s why fatherhood is such a confusing ordeal for men. Maybe that’s why the expectations for fathers continues to be shamefully low.

25 years ago I was in 6th grade, clueless about the origin of human life, about collecting titles. I was just a catholic school boy, laughing like an infidel at the pronunciation of the delicate instruments that would gift me with the most important title I would ever hold: Father.

I’m just slightly embarrassed it took so long to realize such truth.

Be well,

Jay

The One Realistic Morning Routine That Will Make You a Better Person

We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. — Howard Zinn

Morning routines are all the rage. They set the tone and increase optimal achievement throughout the day.

According to the ultra successful like Oprah and Tony Robbins — ice baths, hot yoga, soul-cleansing meditation, marathon journal sessions and frolics up a mountainside at sun rise are just a few things you’ll need to do before breakfast in order to be more successful, happier.

But what if an elaborate morning routine is simply not realistic?

What if you’re a working parent who, along with getting yourself together, have to wake up the kids and pack lunches and make breakfast and brush teeth and wipe butts and study for the looming tests and break up fist-fights in the hallway?

Proponents may suggest, “How about waking up earlier?”

Um…how about no.

I wake up at 5:15 every weekday, 6:30 on weekends. I get to bed around 10:30–11 during the week. And on the weekends, I often collapse on the couch by 9.

So if waking up earlier is simply not an option how can we — the breakfast-builders, lunch-makers, teeth-brushers, butt-wipers, teachers and referees of the household get our day started right?

Since I have only about an hour each morning before I leave for work, here’s what I do…

Every morning, for the last 45 days I have practiced a three point reflection.

It’s nothing elaborate.

As I’m having coffee I scratch down three things I am grateful for.

Here’s what it a page looks like…

Here’s my journal entries from 9/4 to 9/15

Some mornings the three points come quick and my reflection takes less than a minute. Other days I have to sit longer and reflect deeper until I find 3 things I’m grateful for. But even on mornings of longer reflection, the practice is completed within 3–4 minutes.

It’s a simple habit which requires no special journal or pen. Just a legal tablet or notebook. But in 45 days I’m realizing the positive effects the practice having on my mental health.

Here’s what I learned…

My first thoughts of the day are positive

It’s so easy to wake up on a Monday morning and think negatively about the day ahead and about all the things you have to do before you limp back into bed at night. The 3 point reflection requires you to develop positive thoughts before the chaos of the day begins which helps you embrace and welcome the impending day.

I get to have me time

Parenting gives you little time to yourself. But as a parent you need to find time for yourself. You need to be constructively selfish. By doing so, by taking care of yourself, even if it’s only a few minutes, you will have more patience and energy for others.

I’m more present throughout the day

Identifying good moments each morning has trained me to look for good moments and appreciate good moments as I encounter them throughout the day. The daily chaos often distracts us from finding meaningful moments that we should acknowledge and celebrate. The simple 3 point reflection allows you to celebrate those moments which in turn inspires you to find more of those moments as the day stretches on.

I’m learning humility

It’s so easy to complain. It’s so easy to take your life for granted — to forget that you have electricity and running water and food in the refrigerator. It takes only a few minutes a day to recognize all of the luxuries you take for granted and how humbling it is to have such luxuries.

I just feel happier

Happiness and gratitude are a package deal. You can not be happy and ungrateful at the same time. Learn gratitude and you’ll find real happiness. The 3 point reflection is a daily emotional inventory that allows you to acknowledge things in your life that make you happy. It’s also a daily reminder that you need to give the present day your best effort so tomorrow, when you sit down to reflect, you will have three moments worth writing about.

Daily life is dizzying. Sometimes I feel all I do is run, run, run and sometimes it seems impossible to find a moment’s peace. But finding those quiet moments in the day are crucial for your mental health. It’s those quiet moments that help you to slow down, gain perspective, better yourself and realize that despite the impending chaos of the waiting day there are at least three things to be grateful for.

Be well,

Jay

How to Persevere Like a 4 Year Old

Total Read Time: 4 minutes

THE MONKEY BARS. The playground’s proving ground. The callouser of hands. The skinner of knees.

A horizontal symbol of strength, of perseverance. Conquered by only big kids.

On a sun-splashed day, my wife and I take our 3 kids to a local park.

When the kids find the playground, our youngest, Dylan rushes to the monkey bars.

He stands underneath, looking up (the littlest one is always looking up), sizing up the bars with his big blue eyes. His little head swirling with possibilities, willing to disregard his physical safety to answer his own little “What if’s…?”

Dylan shouts, “Hey mom, dad watch!”

Cindy and I plant ourselves, across the playground, on a stone bench anchored in some shade.

Like a little gymnast, Dylan stands on the platform and eyes up the bars.

A buzzer sounds in his head and with both hands Dylan grabs the first rung and pulls his feet from the platform. He dangles. And dangles.

And dangles.

Feeling the fullness of his own weight for the first time.

Valiantly, he tries to muscle his right arm forward but the distance between rungs is too great and he crashes to the ground.

Cindy and I let out that familiar parental gasp.  But before we could push ourselves from our seats Dylan unknots himself, springs to his feet,”I’m ok!” and dashes back on the platform. Unfazed. Determined.

Cindy and I sit down and find our breaths.

They don’t know it, but these children are fantastic teachers. Little daredevils who remind you about the power of perseverance.

And if you’re struggling, questioning your limits (and let’s be honest…who isn’t) observe children discover their abilities, their potential, their unflinching desire to persevere, to answer the “What if…?” and you’ll be humbled.

Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat. –F. Scott Fitzgerald

Begin with the End in Mind

Dylan is standing on platform again, staring down the length of the monkey bars. It’s only 6 feet, but in his eyes it must look like crossing the Grand Canyon.

How quickly do we think about falling before our feet leave the platform? How quickly does doubt extinguish our fires of victory?

Skin Your Knees, Callous Your Hands

Dylan divorces the platform. Unafraid to skin his knees, to callous his hands.

He dangles with nothing but his soft, little kid arms holding his weight. His right hand moves forward. His left hand remains. In the space and time when he’s dandling by one hand, I’m sure he feels the strain, the familiar flash of human doubt, but his right hand finds the next rung, followed by his left.

Leaving doubt and fear behind on the previous rung.

How many times have we skirted a challenge for fear we might get hurt? For fear, that the risk wouldn’t be worth the reward?

Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go. –William Feather

Keep Your Enthusiasm

Rung by rung, Dylan moves forward. It’s hard and it hurts but he’s smiling. He feels his own momentum. He feels the tide of achievement. He understands he’s on the verge of doing something he’s never done.

He’s happy.

Why is enthusiasm so hard for adults to find? 

Crush Your Threshold

One rung remains.

He’s dangling by both arms. His body like a soft pendulum, swinging back and forth.  His arms are screaming. He’s at his limits. Then, somehow, his right arm pushes forward, and grabs the next rung.

Why is it that the older we get, the more unwilling we are to cross our thresholds? Why do we see thresholds as roadblocks instead of doorways into a new world?

“It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”
— Confucius

Go the Distance

When Dylan’s feet hit the platform at the end of the monkey bars he smiles, throws his hands in the air and shouts’ “I did it!”

It’s the pure joy of accomplishment. He stands on the platform and looks back at the monkey bars he just crossed.

Cindy and I are clapping. We’re the only ones, in the whole playground, clapping.

And that’s all Dylan needs.

My 4 Year Old Teaches Me About Perseverance

A writer’s life is not for the faint of heart.

There have been plenty of moments, after I’ve poured my blood into a piece, convinced it was my finest work, sure to be liked and shared and explode across the internet only to have it published– not with a bang but a whimper. 

And if I’m still being honest, there have been many late nights sitting at my table, glassy-eyed, staring at the computer, dandling on the rung of doubt. Questioning myself. Why am I doing this? Is anyone really going to read this? Why aren’t I in bed already? What if I fail?

But on a perfect summer afternoon I witnessed my son, a 4 year old boy, strain under his own body weight.

I witnessed him persevere.

He taught me that the strain is our greatest teacher.

And I was humbled.

May you always stay committed to your goals. Because your commitment, your perseverance is another person’s motivation.

May you always have the strength to keep moving forward.

May you always persevere.

Be well,

Jay

Crossing the Line: The Birth of a Delusional Parent

It’s July and I’m standing along a sun-splashed sideline watching my son embroiled in a heated little league baseball game, sweating.

Chase’s team mans the field. There’s a runner on first base.

Two outs.

They are losing 6-4.

Chase is playing second base. He’s got a pair of black socks pulled above his calves, his gray baseball pants are loose in the thighs and tighten just below the knee caps. He’s wearing eye black and with his hat pulled low he looks like he just stepped out of the baseball cards I collected when I was a kid.

A baseball field has two foul lines.

A white chalk line that begins at the batter’s box, runs straight through the first and third base bags and dead ends deep in the outfield fence.

The line is to help umpires and players know if the ball is fair or foul.

The line is also to keep parents out.

 

Parents like me, spongy and creaky kneed, patrol sidelines.

We watch our children and urge and instruct and curse and twist and tense and believe our body language has magical powers to spell the plays unfolding on the field before us.

As a teacher and former coach, I’ve witnessed parents living vicariously though their children. Stepping sideways out of their own lives and into the lives of their children. Driving their children like shiny new cars to run down their lost dreams.

But there’s danger in such joy rides.

I’ve seen children limp through adolescence hating those things once loved because parents crossed a line, because parents got too close, because parents exploited their child’s ability hoping to recover dusty trophies from the past.

It’s something I swore I’d never do.

There’s an aluminum pop.

It’s a quick bouncer up the middle.

Chase springs to his right, dives, extends left arm and the baseball disappears and the heat rises as if Medford, New Jersey tilted closer to the sun and the right field chalk line dissolves and I’m playing second base and there’s a quick bouncer up the middle and I react, faster then I’ve reacted in years because my body feels fast and strong like a new Corvette and I dive and extend my left arm and the baseball disappears in my glove, its weight cradled in my palm and I land on my stomach and the dirt funnels up my nose and I reach in the glove and with a back-hand toss watch the ball arch into the July sky and land safely in the shortstop’s glove who is standing firmly on second base.

The crowd explodes.

Three outs.

I spring to my feet, dirty and smiling.  I just defied gravity.  I just made eyes pop. I just made mouths say wow. I just did what big leaguers on baseball cards do for a living.

The shortstop slaps his glove across my back as if to say, “Atta boy!”

The coach barrels out of the dugout, crosses the foul line clapping and cheering and announces, “That’s a big league play, son!”

And it was. It was awesome.

And I didn’t do any of it.

My son did. It was all Chase.

I just poured his Frosted Flakes, tied his cleats and drove him Medford, New Jersey.

In the sudden swell of excitement, a line had been crossed.

A line I swore I’d never cross.

Between innings as parents reapplied suntan lotion, as the opposing team littered the field and Chase’s team traded gloves for bats and it unnerved me to learn how quickly self-awareness strikes out.  How in the snap of one play I let my mind cross into his body. How quickly delusional parents are born.

Like wading through soup I pushed to nearby shade, wiped my forehead, exhaled and acknowledged that I was hot and a little bothered.

Be well,

Jay