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

Taking Notes: A Love Story

The following post is the first 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


In a world of Nicholas Sparks it’s hard to write something original about love.

Love is a well-traveled topic. One, I’m sure, you’ve taken plenty of notes on.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is engraved your heart and scrolled among the stars.

Love is in air. Love is an open door. And, if you find the right station, love is a battlefield.

Anytime you write about love you ink a fine line between cliche’ and Nicholas Sparks. So, in my attempt to avoid such fate, the only thing I can offer is a secret love story about love. So secret that when my wife reads this, she will know it for the first time.

I’ve written about my health issues and personal shame and failure but writing about love is something I’ve avoided. For me, writing about love is a little embarrassing. A little too revealing.

And plus, how do I write about love in such an authentic yet impenetrable way that it’s not the subject of dissection, comparison and judgment?

Truth is– you can’t.

It’s simple emotional physics (which should’ve totally been a 90’s emo band name).

To love is to want. And to want is to have weakness. Therefore, you can’t open yourself to love without subjecting yourself to dissection, comparison and judgment.

I fell in love with a girl when I was 16.

The first time I saw her standing in the blue painted threshold of the doorway to her biology class I just knew, with an absolute bone-certainty that I would marry her one day.

And 10 years later I did.

Even though that story is absolutely true, I understand you’re skepticism. And I don’t blame you.  It seems too easy and yet, at the same time, too impossible. Too Nicholas Sparks.

So I’ll tell you another story that’s more believable. Yet, in some ways, just as fantastical.

Cindy and I are sitting at large round table, the kind guests sit around at weddings. We’re in the back of a Las Vegas hotel ballroom, the kind couples rent for weddings.

Except instead of a DJ, there’s a UCLA professor at the far end of the ballroom. He’s standing on a stage, behind a podium. To his right is a movie screen holding an MRI of a human brain. A brain whose cerebellum is damaged. A cerebellum that looks a lot like mine.

The room is filled with people of all ages. Some people in wheelchairs. Some people clutching canes and walking sticks. The same haunted glow in everyone’s eyes.

We’re in Las Vegas attending the National Ataxia Federation’s annual conference for patients with neurological disease because seven months earlier I was diagnosed with cerebellar atrophy.

Cindy and I are surrounded by people of all ages stricken with rare neurological diseases. ALS. MS. Huntington’s Disease. Brain tumors.

Some people sit with their spouse. Some sit their parents. Some sit alone.

The UCLA professor is discussing advancements in stem cell research as a way of improving and repairing brain growth.

Cindy is beside me taking notes.

Her hand moves in small yet amazing ways. She is writing down what the professor is saying as fast as he is saying it.

Her penmanship is catholic school perfect. Her notes are well-spaced and organized and her margins are aligned.

It was a secret moment in my history. One I’ve never told Cindy about.

A moment of enormous fear yet as my eyes trace the ink-curls of her words, a small moment of enormous comfort and safety.  A moment where love was learned. A moment when I finally realized I was lucky enough to find a woman who cared more for me than I could possibly care for myself.

A moment that gifted me the eventual courage to roll my shoulders and write these sentences–

Let my cerebellum soften to oatmeal. Let my brain cells explode. Let my eyes go blind. Because there’s girl with green eyes standing in the blue doorway and she’s not moving. And she never will.

And that is what love becomes. 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.

But even that seems Sparksian.

A chronically sick man whose hands are shaking, whose body aches, whose teetering on the edge of self-destruction is sitting beside his wife in a Las Vegas ballroom. They’re high school sweethearts. They have three children together. But seven months ago things suddenly got harder.

And yet she still takes notes.

As the professor speaks and the damaged brain that holds the screen looms like a thundercloud over the room with her free hand, she reaches across the table to hold his hand, to ease him, to feel his pain.

Be well,

Jay

 

12 Things I Learned This Summer

As a teacher, my relationship with summer is complicated.

I love being lazy at 10 am. I love long afternoons on the beach, watching my children build sand castles and dig for shells. I love impromptu BBQs and staying up past 11 pm on a Tuesday to watch reruns of The King of Queens.

Yet, after a few weeks of freedom, I miss the routine and discipline it takes to survive each school day.

Sure, I love spending time with my children especially when they’re smiling and sharing…not so much when they’re being loud, selfish jerks.

Summer’s complications provide good reflecting material. Here are 12 things I learned or came to better understand this summer:

1. The movies are (still) outrageous

As a kid, when mom would take me to the movies, she would stuff her pockets with contraband– homemade popcorn packed Zip-lock baggies, juice boxes and shoe string licorice from Woolworth’s– and tell me that concession prices are simply too outrageous to buy anything. That was 30 years ago.

Embarrassed and annoyed, I’d tell her that when I’m a father I’m going to buy my kids food at the theater.

On a rainy summer day, I left the wife home and took the kids to see Despicable Me 3. Yet after 4 tickets and 4 sodas (yes, I bought each kid a soda because I’m dad and I’m awesome) and the the 5 gallon tub of popcorn totaled $72 I firmly announced to my children that the movies are outrageous and they’ll never be dining at the theater again.

I think I owe mom an apology.

2. Your credit card company may have a “pay down program”

On a recent statement I noticed how much I was paying in interest a month. Embarrassed and annoyed, as if my credit card company had courted me to the movies with its deep pockets filled with pre-bought snacks, I called and talked to a representative and learned that my credit card, Discover, has a “pay down program”. After you enroll (which is free) simply pay any amount over the minimum monthly payment and Discover will apply a 5% credit to your minimum payment.

Which means, if your monthly minimum is $100 and you pay $100.01, Discover will apply a 5% credit to your statement, subtracting your balance by $5.

If your looking to pay down your credit card it’s worth finding out if your credit card company has a similar program.

3. Surprise your children

When I recently asked my daughter what the best thing about this summer, she replied, “The surprise trip to Tennessee.”

In July, Cindy and I surprised the kids with a trip to visit family in Tennessee. We rolled the tikes out of bed, assembled them on the couch and announced we were boarding a plane to Tennessee in 4 hours. They had no choice but to brush their teeth and be excited.

A family trip is great. A surprise family trip makes it that much more memorable.

4. Your marriage requires you to be proactive

This summer I read a lot about living a proactive life. It’s apparent that addressing your problems before they gain mass and weight is critical to living a healthy, happy life.

After 12 years of marriage ( I’m not an expert by any means) but a proactive marriage–one where you address feelings and choices as they arise– is the healthiest thing a married couple can do. Passiveness and inactivity in a marriage creates tension, frustration and division which only further compound the relationship.

5. You control your destiny

I found one of my new favorite books this summer–The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. It’s a simple, parabolic read. A boy journeys through the desert searching for wealth yet along the way he learns about the realities of life.

The Alchemist stakes this truth– no matter the circumstance, we hold ownership over our actions. By victimizing ourselves, by blaming others, by skirting responsibility we stunt our growth, we immobilize ourselves.

I’m so glad I found this book and, if it hasn’t already, I hope it finds you.

6. Vitamins are good

After a friend’s suggestion, I ordered and tried a vitamin package from The Melaluca Company called Peak Performance Total Health.

I take two vitamin packets a day, one in the morning and one at night. The packets are filled with 12 supplements and vitamins.

After two months, I’m happy with the results. I have more energy, better focus and my joint and muscle pain have noticeably decreased.

Also, I began taking Vertisil, which is an all-natural supplement to help relieve symptoms including balance, vertigo and motion sickness. You can order it on Amazon but it’s a little pricey at $40 for 60 tablets. However, I would highly recommend it for anyone struggling with balance issues.

7. Trust your change

I kicked-off summer by delivering the commencement speech at my high school’s graduation. Trust Your Change was the speech’s title.

Trusting your change is hard. But what helps to better accept change is having a set of cemented principals like honesty, discipline and patience that stand as everlasting personal pillars, that weather uncertainty and provide us the courage to trust our change.

Having such principals lessens the stress of change.

If you work on establishing principals, trusting your change becomes more natural.

8. It doesn’t hurt to ask

This summer I interviewed authors, teachers, entrepreneurs and professional storytellers because I wanted to learn more about their craft.

At first it was a little intimidating cold-emailing strangers and slightly disappointing when a few didn’t respond. However, in the end, more people responded than those who didn’t.

I talked to some great people this summer, like award-winning storyteller Hillary Rea, and learned that if you’re genuinely looking for help most people are willing to field your questions and offer such help.

9. Sometimes no one shows up

In consecutive years, August has proven to be my toughest blogging month. As summer concludes the traffic on writefighton.org is at its thinnest.

Sure it’s a little frustrating, but it’s the serving of humble pie I occasionally need.

August is a reminder that writing is about honing a skill and putting in unseen work, like shooting foul shots in an empty gym.

Writing requires practice even when no one is reading.

10. Medium.com is a great place to spend time

If you’re looking for something interesting to read or thinking about blogging but don’t want the hassle of building your own blog I recommend medium.com.

Medium.com is free site where you can write, share and read articles on essentially any topic. (I’m a big fan of the life lessons and writing articles).

I joined medium.com last summer but didn’t get serious until this summer. If you want to read more or publish your own work then you should definitely check out medium.com.

11. It’s ok to let your children go

Just as I pulled into the parking lot for her soccer practice, Haley said, “Dad just drop me off here. I will walk up to practice.”

“It’s ok sweetie, I’ll park and we’ll walk up together.”

“No, I can do it myself.”

When she turned 9 in April, Haley’s feet began growing roots in the soil of stubborn independence. Seeing her everyday this summer made me realize how she’s distancing herself from childish things and stretching into adolescence.

12. It’s only nature that summer passes by

There’s a tendency at the end of the summer to lament how fast the summer has passed. But that’s life. The brevity amplifies the beauty of it all. Watching the seasons, watching people you love transition from one phase of life to the next is what gives brilliance to the human experience.

I hope your summer season was filled with a lifetime of warm moments that ride with you deep into the future days of your life.

Be well,

Jay

Couples Who Watch TV Together Stay Together

Over the last few years I’ve made a concerted effort to watch less TV and spend more time reading and writing.  Why?

Because that’s what all the productivity experts on the internet told me to do. Less leisure. More work. They told me if I want to become a successful writer, I’d have to eliminate distractions, turn off the boob tube and get serious because writing is serious business, only the truly dedicated welcome success and no legit writer spends their Saturday afternoons watching four hours of Impractical Jokers when there are things to write.

So I severely cut my TV hours. No Breaking Bad. No Walking Dead. No Game of Thrones. (And thankfully the Philadelphia sports scene has been pretty grim lately so it wasn’t terribly hard to miss a few games).

And I’m pretty sure that when I told people I didn’t really watch TV, while they politely nodded they were secretly saying, “You think you’re better then me?” (Ironically, a line made famous by the last show I was ever addicted to–Seinfeld.)

For years Cindy hinted that we should find a show together. Our show. Curl up on the couch, husband and wife and experience one of our great American privileges…TV.

But nothing ever came of it. We never found a show to satisfy a mutual desire to veg.

Recently, Cindy asked me to watch NBC’s This is Us. She kept telling me how good it was. How much I would enjoy it since it’s about thirtysomethings. People with jobs and kids and family drama. People like us.

“People like us?”

“Yeah, people like us.”

“That sounds terrible.”

And on I went, not watching TV.

But finally, on a lazy day between Christmas and New Years ( I say “day” because between those two holidays no one really knows what day it is) I submitted. I put down the books and laptop and sunk into the couch to watch an episode with my wife.

And 20 minutes later, I was hugging a pillow and wrestling tears.

This is Us is fantastic television. It’s a masterclass in storytelling.  The show examines the disjointed lives of the Pearson family and it’s episodes seamlessly weave together the past and the present with humor and gravity.

The characters are conflicted and tortured people. People like us.

this-is-us-on-nbc

Over the next few days Cindy and I binged the last 10 episodes together. ( Yes, my first TV bingeing experience… And no I don’t think I’m better then you!)

After us married folk meet the demands of our day, marriage is often attended to meagerly, if attended to at all. And the more children, the more responsibilities we stuff into a marriage, the less attention the marriage receives.

And the glint of those early honeymoon years– the quiet candlelight dinners, the weekend trips, the romantic rendezvous become amazingly distant and almost forgotten memories, like scenes from your once favorite but now canceled TV show.

Twelve years and three children later, most days Cindy and I struggle to find our time. After we both come home from work, “our” time is often a quick recapping of the day’s events while we clean up dinner dishes, coach our children through math homework, referee wrestling matches and do other adult things like pay bills, fold laundry, pick up toys and clean up spills ( I feel like I’m always cleaning up spills).

As life unfurls, I can feel the dynamic of our marriage changing. Changing in that we see and speak to each other less. It’s not intentional. Trust me, I love spending time with my wife, but our life, our responsibilities demand that we give our attention elsewhere.

Since it’s genesis, from tube to plasma, TV has had great bonding power.  TV watching is always best when its a shared experience. But binge watching This is Us with my wife, a show about the importance of family and community, reminded me that marriages, even stable ones need new, shared experiences.

So maybe the living room couch doesn’t sparkle with romanticism. In fact, our couch sparkles with forgotten Lucky Charms and lost Shopkins. But maybe the couch is the weekly (and not so secret) rendezvous we need.

Be well,

Jay

 

7 Reasons Why My Child is a Suburban Dictator

Don’t be fooled.

You’re looking a menace. A television hogger. A fickled eater. A picky dresser. A mess maker. A bed jumper. An interrupter of conversations. And a careless pisser.

You’re staring into the soft but tyrannical face of a suburban dictator.

dylThis is my youngest child, Dylan. He is 3. And if you let him, he will rule your world.

But here’s the thing…he’s so freaking cute and I absolutely love him. And damnit… he knows it.

His rendition of “10 Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed” will puddle you to pudding. His little baby blue eyes will mesmerize you. His smile will slay you.

Dylan’s teacher describes him as a “delight”, a “joy” and a “fabulous little listener.”  His mom-mom calls him a “heartthrob.” And Jean, the friendly Shoprite cashier lady, vows to “gobble him up” every time she sees him.

In true dictator fashion, Dylan is public charmer, a seducer. He possesses the deadly combination of personality, looks and a slight lisp that weakens knees, melts hearts, crumbles democracies.

And the scary thing is, even at 3, he knows he wields a mighty sword.

At home Dylan is known as King Dyl Pickle (the fateful nickname I gave him a few years before his hostile began takeover.)

He knows his smile grants him the keys to the kingdoms of suburbia.

He’s a usurper in Underoos.

Like so many Americans, in the week following last Tuesday’s election, circus, debacle, hot mess, clusterfuck, Kardashian Christmas, I’ve spent considerable time Googling things like Canada, Leonard Cohen songs, the mannequin challenge and dictators.

Last night, KDP was marching around the house demanding a bowl of Scooby Snacks.

“I want Scooby Snacks!” I want Scooby Snacks!”

Cindy and I exchanged a familiar worn out look, a “whose idea was it to have another child” look as KDP marches, commands and demands.

“I want Scooby Snacks… Now!”

Cindy sighs, submits and fills KDP’s bowl with the requested Scooby Snacks. She knows if she doesn’t the next few hours will be absolute hellish, punctuated with timeouts and temper-tantrums and tequila ( ok not tequila, its a week night… I just really like alliteration).

But before you lay judgment upon Cindy and I, please remember sometimes parenting isn’t about instructing and leading and teaching. Sometimes it’s simply about surviving.

So after a week of dictator research (while listening to Hallelujah)  here are 7 reasons why I’m convinced Cindy and I are living under the reign of pint-size dictator.

Reason#1 Dictators tend to speak, scream and rant louder then everyone else until you can no longer ignore them.

This is KDP.

Every damn day.

Reason#2  Dictators do not tolerate opposition.

Currently, KDP’s favorite line is, “Because I said so.”

Reason#3 Dictators enforce public embarrassment.

Cindy and I shudder at the thought of taking KDP to the likes of Target. A simple trip  usually results in him flailing about on a dirty linoleum floor because I’m refusing to buy him strawberry Pop-Tarts

Reason#4  Dictators can be charmers.

“Daddy, I love you.”

“I love you too Dylan.”

“Daddy, can I have some candy now?”

Reason #5 Dictators are often intolerant of opposing views.

“Dylan go to timeout!”

“No timeout. You go to timeout Daddy. I want candy!”

Reason#6 Dictators often fail to admit their weaknesses.

While holding himself and running in place KDP announces, “I don’t have to go potty.”

Reason#7- Historically, dictators have been physically short.

At his last pediatrician appointment KDP was measured in the 25% percentile for height. And if my research is accurate, Napoleon also had an affinity for Scooby Snacks.

Dear reader, I appreciate you reading however, for my own sanity and safety of all suburbia, I ask that you do not mention any of this to KDP.  Dictators are known to have very little tolerance for dissonance.

Be well,

Jay