May 22, 2017 (or the day the universe reminded me to get over myself)

Sometimes things happen that convince you there is some large, mysterious power at work, cartwheeling through the cosmos, orchestrating both big and little things, to get your attention, to make you appreciate the brevity of your life.

Our youngest son Dylan, who is almost 4, has his own bed. It’s a perfectly good bed dressed with a soccer ball comforter and lined with stuffed animals yet he still sleeps in bed with Cindy and I.

(I know…not our finest parenting work but let those without parenting sin cast the first fruit snack.)

Anyway, Sunday night Dylan was extra abusive. Fighting for sleep, I was kicked and punched, elbowed and kneed in my face, neck, back and groin.

At 5:15 am, when the alarm buzzed, I awoke with Dylan’s little knee firmly wedged in my left rib cage.

Annoyed, I push his knee away, growled a Monday-morning-up-before-dawn-and-I-have-to-go-to-work growl and slow roll out of bed.

Shuffling across the bedroom, clearing the fuzz from my eyes, I caught Cindy, in a twist of sheets, on her side, hanging at the edge of the bed, as Dylan laid horizontal, uncovered, head tilted skyward and snoring and holding a sly little smile.

In the kitchen…

…between sips of coffee and a bowl of oatmeal I pop two ibuprofen, message the knot pulsing in my back, stare out into the faded blue morning and think about how it was time to take a parental stand, to move the little ramrod down the hall to his room and force him to sleep in his own, perfectly good bed.

The universe sends an email.

I get to school, enter my classroom, drop in my chair, turn on the computer and.wait for the little miracle of modernity to wake up and do its thing.

A few minutes later I find, resting in my inbox, an email from a former student asking for a favor. The student explains how his grandfather just died and how he attached the obituary his father had written.

The student asks if I could proofread the obituary and offer his father some commentary.

Humbled by the request and intrigued by the contents I began to read.

It’s a fine piece, honoring a man I didn’t know but who, by all accounts, lived a full and happy life, a life dedicated to his family.

 Then it happened.

As if the universe nudged me, making sure I wasn’t too self-involved on this Monday morning. Making sure I was paying attention.

The obituary concludes with an anecdote about how, when the man was a child he would sleep in his father’s bed. How the father would run his hand through the child’s hair. And how even now, a grown man with thinner hair and with his own children, still remembers the comfort of his now deceased father’s hand and the warmth of the bed they shared.

I lean back, shake my head and launch skyward, beyond the drop ceiling, beyond the school roof, out into the rolling universe, defy gravity, float along  and watch the morning bloom across the ceaseless sky only to fall earthward, back to my empty classroom, back to my chair, back to smallness of my life, back to the little knot in my lower back.

The universe throat punches us.

On the night of May 22, 2017, a suicide bomber killed 22 people outside an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England.

The first victim announced on the news was an 8 year old girl.

After I kiss my children off to bed, I helplessly watch the rolling television coverage of the bombing for the rest of night.

Later, in the quiet of my bedroom, when I find Dylan asleep and alive and sprawled across my bed I couldn’t help but think of the empty beds now in Manchester.

Dylan is the youngest of my three children.

He’s almost 4. And my eldest just turned 9. Dylan is my last link to the wonders of infancy — the softness, the smell, the little lungs working inside when they lie on your chest and they breathe and you breathe and you feel the absolute magic of their breath inside you.

I guess for me, Dylan and his growing vocabulary and his budding personality and his sudden self-sufficiency starkly affirm the fleeting nature of time. Of how children grow up, venture beyond your reach and become little bodies open to the mercies of the universe.

On what started as another Monday became a day where the universe made itself known, felt. 

Life seems to work that way, one minute your blinded by your own minutia and the next, the universe is there to disciple you.

And when you’re standing over your father’s casket, dreaming of his hand running through your hair or you’ve been suddenly dropped into that nightmare moment, that godless moment of having outlived your child, sometimes, all you can do is lie in bed at night, wonder about the mystery of it all and reach for what is no longer there.

Be well,

Jay

A Mother’s Day Post: 6 Things Moms Worry About ( And Humanity Is So Grateful They Do)

Where would the world be without “mom worry”?

My mom worried that my youngest brother Kyle and I would not be close.

She worried that the 10 years that separated us would be too big of a gap to bridge brotherhood, to bridge conversation.

So mom decided that I, an innocent 10 year old, should witness Kyle’s birth, as a means of bonding us, so we would always have something to talk about.

“Hey brother, do you remember sliding down mom’s birth canal?”

“No.”

“Well I sure do! Can you pass the peanuts?”

Kyle (back) and I (along with my two sons- Dylan and Chase) taking in a baseball game, passing peanuts and reminiscing about the miracle of natural childbirth.

I walked into the delivery room…

… ripe with innocent enthusiasm, expecting to see a smiling stork glide through an open window and present us with a freshly baked child.

Instead, I staggered away from the “miracle”, grizzled like a Normandy invasion survivor– through the double doors and into the waiting room–wide-eyed, shell-shocked and afflicted with a head full of visual shrapnel never to be plucked from my memory.

Despite this,  I’ve grown to appreciate my mom’s worry and concern. In fact, worrying is one of the many things that moms do really well, and get little credit for.

On this Mother’s Day I wanted to offer appreciation for moms. I want to thank my mom, my wife and moms everywhere for providing the world with some much needed mom worry. For having the selflessness to worry about things that help keep humanity alive, comfortable and prospering.

Mom and I rocking some serious hair in 1982.

Shoes

I love my children. I really do. But I have never thought to myself, “Self, your children’s feet are growing by the minute, maybe you should turn off the TV and get your kids some new shoes.” Moms constantly worry about their kid’s shoes. Are they too tight? Too worn? Are they crushing their little toes? Do they make my child look homeless?

 Germs

On the mom utility belt–the Purell hangs next to a travel pack of tissues which hangs next to a bottle children’s Tylenol.

Children are gross and it’s understandable that moms sanitize everything. From shopping carts to monkey bars to toothbrushes, if it wasn’t for the hyper-sterility of moms, the Black Plague would have eaten the world into oblivion.

Lice

Speaking of the Black Plague, lice and their little white eggs have been infesting children’s head and the nightmares of moms since the 14th century.

Clean and folded clothes

Moms always worry that everyone in the house has clean and wrinkle-free clothing to wear. And now that I have three children, I understand how much clothing these critters tear through each week. Doing loads of wash every Saturday is heroic, but folding all those clothes in neat, stacked piles is superhuman.

Birthdays

You’re here because of them. And moms make sure that every year you’re acknowledged with a card, cake and if your knees are young enough–an inflatable bounce house.

School Picture Day

Moms worry about school picture day. A lot.  They worry about everything involved in picture day. Did I buy the right picture package? Is there enough wallets for Aunt Edna and Uncle Earl? Is there enough money in the envelope? Will my child smile? Is my child capable of smiling without looking psychotic?

My mom is the reason my picture graced the school yearbook every year. If it wasn’t for her concern, there may not be any visual evidence of me attending St. Ephrem Elementary between the years of 1986 through 1994.

Different hair styles but mom and I (and Dylan) are still smiling in 2015.

The problem is…moms just care too much.

They sacrifice sleep, go gray and entertain ulcers thinking and worrying about the welfare of others. Motherhood is a selfless odyssey. One spent catering to the needs, demands and grabbiness of children and husbands.

Frankly, I don’t know how moms do it.

But humanity and I are truly grateful that you do.

Much love to my wife on Mother’s Day! Thanks for all your effort, support, love and worry! We are better because of you.

And In case you’re wondering…

…Kyle and I are still close.  And honestly, our closeness has nothing to do with me witnessing his birth. We just both like baseball.

Defining Fatherhood: A Letter to My Daughter on Her 9th Birthday

Dear Haley,

It’s incredible. It really is.

9 years ago, a nurse loaded you and your mom into the back seat of our silver Chevy Malibu, shut the door, stepped back, offered a smile and suddenly our lives began together.

Surprisingly, sometimes life is that cut and dry.

One day you’re curled inside your mother and the next day you’re here, swaddled and waiting for a ride home.

I remember the drive home from the hospital.

As the engine hummed, I tried to comprehend how 9 months raced by like they never happened, and now you were suddenly here, snuggled in the back seat with your blue eyes fixed out the back window, watching the world in reverse.

Nervous and sleep deprived, I ordered myself to pay attention, turning off the radio, checking mirrors and gripping the steering wheel at the recommended 10 and 2 positions.

In that moment it became clear–I was a father. I was your dad. And on that day, my soul responsibility was to drive my most precious cargo, you and your mother, 4 miles from hospital to home. From point A to point B without incident.

Things Change, Things Remain the Same

Haley, somehow you’re 9 years old.

And some things have changed. You’re taller, smarter, louder and more self-sufficient then I could ever imagine. You know how to divide, multiply, work an Ipad and yesterday you informed me about the central nervous system and all its complicated functions.

Yet like our first car ride together (which was an absolute success!) there remains a certitude. I’m still your dad. I’m still responsible, no matter your age or crisis and no matter how nervous and sleep deprivation I am, for getting you from point A to point B.

Raising a Daughter

As a kid, I was raised on pro wrestling and domestic weaponry.

I spent most of my young life on athletic teams bolstered by boys, roughhousing with my brothers, proving my toughness, my invulnerability.

So understand, fathering a daughter is a little odd for me. This may sound strange, but sometimes you’re a familiar mystery. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with you.

You’ve change so much, so fast, that some days I stare at you, watch you smile, cartwheel about the house and watch your blue eyes sparkle in the sunlight and wonder how all this incredible stuff happened.

And I sometimes wonder how I will handle all the incredible stuff that’s yet to come.

Defining Fatherhood

Watching you grow up is both exciting and terrifying.

As we stand at the threshold of those tumultuous adolescent years, I’ve been thinking greatly about what kind of dad do you need right now?

The answer, I believe, is a simple one.

A dad defined is like any good driver.  Present. Focused. Anticipates dangers. Ignores distractions. Guides their child through the unpredictability of life.

A dad is there to help a child get from point A to point B.

And whether point B is your 10th birthday or some prom dress calamity or marriage or motherhood, if I did my job, if I was the dad you deserved, you’ll be prepared. You’ll meet your challenges with a patience, honesty and humility.

It’s become clear, fatherhood is not about meddling or interjecting or inflicting my will on you or filling your head with fiction. In fact, fatherhood really isn’t about the father at all. It has and always will be about the livelihood of the child. 

In 9 years you’ll be 18 and things will have undoubtedly change.

You’ll be driving yourself. You’ll be standing at the cusp of adulthood and may not need me the way you do now.  But despite my dwindling demand, my job description remains.

You need the dad who drove you and your mother home from the hospital 9 years ago. A dad to remain vigilance and focus.

You’ve entrusted me to listen, eliminate distractions, anticipate danger, embrace the incredible and enjoy the ride.

And my girl, I don’t want to let you down.

Happy birthday!

Love,

Dad

The Awkward Dance of Parenting

Maybe the key to good parenting is knowing when to get the hell out of your child’s way.

I bought her flowers.

I complimented the elegance of her dress, the loose curls in her hair.

I made her laugh and held her hand as we posed for pictures.

I escorted her to the car, opened the door and ushered her into the backseat.

We walked hand-in-hand into the gymnasium, through the wake of thumping music to our table. I helped her slip off her coat and hung it on the back of the chair for her.

I was, by all definitions, a gentlemen.

Then she flashed that big jack-o-lantern smile, said, “Thanks dad”, spun toward her waiting friends then skipped away without even saying goodbye.

Damn you, Bob Carlisle

A few weeks ago Haley and I attended her school’s father-daughter dance.

She is 8 now, on the verge of 9. She rarely plays with toys. She talks to her friends on her iPad. She spins cartwheels around the house, she’s a picky eater, thinks her brothers are gross and likes a good pedicure.

My daughter is growing up. And it’s both astounding and downright terrifying.

For majority of the dance I stood with my hands in my pockets talking to the other dads about football and summer vacation plans.

Every so often Haley and her friends would buzz by. She would flash that smile, a wave and be gone.

When the DJ announced we had come to the last song of the night, Haley rushed over and asked, “Dad, would you like to dance with me?”

Of course, the last song was Bob Carlisle’s melter of men–“Butterfly Kisses”.

The 3 1/2 minute song is a musical microcosm of parenthood. It’s message is simple: Parenting is an awkward dance, a painful paradox of holding on while simultaneously letting go.

The Painful Paradox

As a high school teacher, I’ve witnessed the damage that occurs when parents hold onto their child too long.

A too-involved-parent often equates to an entitled, dependent and confused child. (Especially, when I explain I’m there to make them think– not to sharpen their pencils, hand them high marks, entertain their egos or celebrate their existence.)

Understand, I’m not here to throw stones.

Parenting is a terribly hard business managed by terribly flawed people.

But as a parent, I’m learning that holding on to your child for too long, is not only stifling for the child but it’s pure parental selfishness.

I want my children to be independent and self-aware. I want them to embrace self-efficacy and learn the power of perseverance. I want them to learn the kind of guts it takes to say “no”.

For this to happen, I have to let them go adventuring without me. I have to let them face danger. I have to let them endure embarrassment. I have to let them enter the ring, alone, and wrestle with the monsters of moral terror.

Of course, children need watchful parents.

Children need parents who impart structure and love and joy and disciple and chores. But children also need parents who know when to get the hell out of the way.

Meanwhile, back at the dance…

Bob Carlisle, is still singing and I’ve got to believe I’m not the only father feeling the tickle of tears.

I pull Haley a little tighter and we dance until the song fades away and the house lights come on.

I look down and her, she up at me, “I love you, Haley.”

“I love you too daddy.”

“Daddy?”

“Yes?”

“Can I talk to my friends before they leave?”

And before I could answer she dashes off, sprinting into her young life leaving me behind with nothing to do but thrust my hands into my pockets and wait.

Despite showering Haley with flowers and praise and attention I was, like many more nights to come, left behind.

And though I want to call my daughter back, hold her, tell her how much I love, I know right now, the right thing to do is let her go.

Be well,

Jay

Bowling with God (or a curious conversation with my son about death)

When I grow up I still want to see the world through childish eyes.

A few days after writing Advice from the Dead, Chase and I were in the car together. I’m driving, he’s tucked in the backseat and it’s raining.

Of course it’s raining.

Stories like this are almost always punctuated by weather.

With the windshield wipers on full tilt, a rumble of thunder rolls overhead and flash of lightening splits the night sky in half.

thunder-953118_960_720

“Dad”, Chase says, “did you know when there’s thunder and lightning God is bowling in heaven.”

“Yes, bud I did know that.”

“How did you know that dad?”

“Well, I went to catholic school just like you buddy. And my teachers told me the same thing.”

Call it telepathy, call it being a parent but I felt the questions forming like thunderclouds in his head. He’s pondering the angles of time. He’s attempting to comprehend the news that I was once a kid like him, unsure and curious, sporting a catholic school uniform, sitting quietly with folded hands as the teacher educated us on things like God and heaven and bowling.

The car eases to a traffic light and stops.  The rain falls hard and heavy.  The windshield fogs at its edges.

“Dad, do know who the Ultimate Warrior is?”

( Clearly, not the question I was expecting.)

“The wrestler?”
“Yeah.”
“Yes I know who he is. Why?”
“Because he died.”
“I know.”
“Dad, he had cancer and he died.”

“Hey buddy, how did you know that?”                                                                           “Youtube.”

The first person I ever really knew who died was my grandmother. I was 16 when it happened. I remember not thinking much about her death. In a way, I guess, it made sense. She was old and sick and she died. And that was that.

I catch Chase in the rear view mirror. His knees pressed against his chest, feet up on the seat, his oversized eyes watching the watery glow of street lights and store signs flick by. I’m envious. His little life unbounded by theories of time, of the unnerving truth that I will one day die and won’t be here to answer his questions.

The light turns green and we go.

The second person I knew who died was a close family friend, Joey.  One night, for reasons still unknown, he hung himself with his karate belt in the bathroom. He was 12. I was 18. He was a happy and popular and had blonde hair then he was dead.  I remember my dad, with wet eyes and strained words, explaining what happened, clearing his throat, working out the details. I remember saying I was fine. I remember going to school.  I remember sitting in history class, staring out the window watching the morning bloom into its becoming and imaging what it must be like to be dead. Was it like my grade school teachers said? Was it peaceful and warm? Was everything italicized in gold?  Was God even there? If so, would he greet me? Would we go bowling? If so, would I have to bring my own shoes or does heaven have a shoe rental counter?

The engine shifts and we pass the plastic heavens of suburbia– Target, Starbucks, Chick-fil-A.

I was curious. I wanted to press the conversation. I wanted to know what my child knew about life, about death.

“Hey Chase, do you know what happens when you die?”
“What?”

“Well, bud…you go to heaven.”
“Oh yeah. They said that at school.”

“So dad, is the Ultimate Warrior in heaven?”

“I think so.”
“But he doesn’t have cancer in heaven. Because you can’t have cancer in heaven, right dad?”
“Chase, do you know what cancer is?”
“It means you’re really sick.”
“Kind of.”
“Dad, do you have cancer?”

“No.”

“Dad, when you die are you going to go to heaven?”
“Well, I hope so bud.”

“Because when you’re in heaven, you’re not sick anymore and I know sometimes you’re sick. That’s what mom says. So if you go to heaven you’ll feel better, right dad?”

“I hope so bud.”

“But if you’re in heaven than you can’t take me to my soccer games.”

We merge onto the highway and the engine shifts and we race under an overpass and things get quiet, the rain stops and I digest the absoluteness of my son’s declaration and I breathe and feel the spinning wheels, the pulsing engine and the car charges toward the waiting darkness and there’s an explosion of thunder, a slash of lighting and just before we exit the quiet of the overpass, Chase calmly says, “But dad if you’re in heaven you can meet the Ultimate Warrior. And then you and the Ultimate Warrior could go bowling with God.”

Beyond the brim of the overpass there looms thunder and lightning.

Before we blast headfirst into the storm I squeeze the steering wheel, stiffen my wrist, catch Chase in the mirror again and lacking something inside–maybe courage, maybe conviction to challenge his young beliefs lean my head back, brace myself for what’s to come and simply reply, “I hope so buddy.”

I hope so.

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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5 Afflictions of Fatherhood No One Warns You About

kids1. Pooping becomes a public exhibition.

2.  You will unknowingly go to work– attend important meetings, give presentations, entertain potential clients with your child’s boogers encrusting the shoulders of your wrinkle- free Van Heusens.

3. Watching an entire football game without interruption is no longer your right as a red blooded, tax-paying American.

4. The opening melody and lyrics to your child’s favorite cartoon will haunt your brain… FOREVER.

5. According to your child, whatever  important thing you are doing  –merging on to speeding highway traffic, curing cancer, negotiating with terrorists –pales in comparison to their absolute, immediate need for a juice box.

Happy Weekend,

Jay

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