When Your Child Realizes How Cruel The World Can Be

Hours before my daughter’s 10th birthday I committed murder.

Call me heartless, call me a bastard but since I don’t own a gun or crossbow–I did it with a hammer.

Trust me, I didn’t want to do it. But, as life teaches, sometimes you have to do things you never thought you would do.

I did it minutes before midnight, when I assume most murders are committed.

I did it in the shadows behind my house, near the trashcans. So the body could be easily disposed.

Before dinner, Haley was eyeing the evening news. She stood petrified before the television, like a child summoned to the blackboard trying to solve some hand-scratched equation in front of the entire class.

Haley is coming into her own now, realizing that the vague, glittery conceptions she once held of the world, a world of painted in rainbows, frolicked by unicorns is tragically wrong.

On this given night, a crazy man plowed a van through a crowd of innocent people in Germany.  A deranged woman shot four people at the YouTube headquarters in San Francisco. And President Trump postured behind a podium, promised to build a wall, promised harsh consequences for any uninvited guest who mouses through cracks of our star-spangled foundation.

Haley frowns at the television. Her little fists tighten to little knots. She looks at me, worried, like she wants to ask big, serious questions–Why are so adults narrow-minded? So bitter? So destructive? What, in God’s rainbowed heaven, is fucking wrong with adults?

Later that night I set traps and went for a beer.

With my elbows on the bar, I received the following text from my wife:

“He’s slowly dying. There’s blood everywhere. He’s still making noises.”

The next day morning, as I drove with Haley tucked in the backseat, we held a conversation:

“Dad, last night, you know how the mouse was still alive in the trap…”

“Yes.”

“…how it was squeaking…”

“I know.”

“… well, did you kill it?”

A child’s youth passes uncomfortably fast for a parent.

Sometimes it’s hard to look at my daughter, like I’m keeping a secret from her. I realize she toes the most difficult years of her life. I know she’ll soon be run off her feet by cruelty– the human cruelty that is the star of the nightly news.

The cruelty that a hammer and I are capable of.

“Yes, Haley. I killed the mouse.”

“Why? He was just a little mouse.”

I eyed Haley through the rear-view mirror. She turned away from me, brought her knees up to her chest and looked beyond her window to find a world scrubbed of glitter, void of unicorns and fanged with adults poised to do monstrous things.

Be well,

Jay

A Letter to My Daughter On Her 10th Birthday

Dear Haley,

It’s incredible. It really is.

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

Jarring as it was–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.

The engine hummed and 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. Your dad.

And on that day, my sole 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.

Haley, somehow you’re 10 years old now.

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

I have two brothers. Your uncles.

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. A bit strange. Sometimes you’re a familiar mystery. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with you.

You’ve change so much. 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 next 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 approach your challenges with a patience, honesty and humility.

It’s become clear that fatherhood is not about meddling or interjecting 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 8 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 10 years ago. A dad to remain vigilant and focused.

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 Air Max 90 (Or The First Time I Learned About Envy)

This week’s publication is dedicated to my friend and fellow writer Deb Dauer, who recently passed away from complications caused by ALS. 

Although my time with Deb was brief, she taught me to live, to write with courage and spirit and that true happiness can only be found in the connections you make. 

Thank you and be well my friend. 

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


At 10 years old I learned about envy.

It was 1990 and Nike had just released the Air Max 90 sneaker.

To the uniformed catholic school boys, sporting navy blue slacks, yellow dress shirts, navy blue ties all accented with black pleather shoes, which were sold exclusively at a local mom-and-pop shoe store that resembled a shoe museum rather then a working shoe store, fashion-wise—gym class was a big deal.

A pre-adolescent parade of parent-bought sneakers.

In a corner of the gym, a gym which was actually an oversized classroom,  stood a loose ring of cool boys— all wearing Air Max 90s.

They were fingering their soles, the soles with the little plastic window that might have been windows into their young souls because the boys were outwardly happy—laughing and smiling and worshiping the Made-in-China-Manna stitched with a Swoosh, that fell from Heaven and slid onto their feet.

Picture courtesy of soletheory.com

Across the gym/classroom I stood on my assigned red dot, alone, staring down at my  pedestrian sneakers.

I felt something sour inside. A sudden smallness. An inferiority.  A failure to appreciate what I had.

 It had nothing to do with running faster or jumping higher.

The Nike Air Max 90s were cool. And at 10 years old, I was learning the world was cruelly split into two— the cool and the uncool.

At 38, as a parent and writer I’m constantly comparing myself to others.

Which makes me feel like I’m in gym class all over again—standing outside the circle of well-laced people, hoping for inclusion.

Let me be clear—comparison is not a healthy practice. Comparison will always prevent you from discovering and maintaining lasting happiness.

I teach my children and my students that envy is a corrosive emotion. A cancer that will always lead to dissatisfaction which often trigger destructive behavior. Yet I’m guilty of envy, of comparisons.

I told you last week I meet a young woman who was an aspiring fitness blogger.

She had a defined blogging niche and a growing audience. She was 15 years younger than me, had been writing for only a few months and spoke with a confidence and coolness that I was envious of.

After she pulled from our conversation, waited at the bar for another Pinot Grigio, I couldn’t help but feeling like I was back standing on my red dot in gym class, looking down at my unbranded sneakers, feeling small again.

I know self-inflicted comparisons hurt. Yet this knowledge doesn’t stop me.

Like knowing too much tequila triggers  nuclear hangovers and liver disease and bad decisions yet still we fasten our sombrero, throw caution to the wind and drink more than we should.

A year later, in 1991, Nike released the Air Max 91. When my neighbor got the Air Max 91s, I bought his Air Max 90s for $20.

I remember how that night I went home and tried out my new/old shoes in the backyard.

The Air Maxs didn’t make me run faster or jump higher. I didn’t feel cooler or happier with them on my feet. It fact, I was uncomfortable. The shoes were a size too big and insoles were molded to the topography of my neighbor’s feet.

As a father and writing teacher, I want my children and students to be authentic and honest with themselves. Be affable to their dreams. Invest in their uniqueness and voice.

I want them to know no matter what products the world flexes on them, no matter the level of success their competition achieves, sustained happiness is purely a product of authenticity.

Now, like an adult, it’s my responsibility to heed my own advice.

Be well.

Jay

The Great American School Experience: Hide In The Closet, Stay Quiet, and Hope Not To Die

They were still bagging up bodies at Stoneman Douglas High School when my 9 year old daughter told me her plan.

“We would hide in the closet.”

“Really? That’s all?”

“Yes, teacher told us that if there is an intruder we are to hide in the closet and stay quiet.”

I didn’t tell her that that plan wouldn’t work. I didn’t tell her if an intruder powered into her school, the first place they would look would be in the closets. No matter how quiet she was.

I also didn’t tell her that, intruder, is too advanced of a word for a 4th grader.

Intruder is a 7th grade word saved for learning about Cesar, the Roman Empire and barbarian migration.

As a parent and a teacher myself, I go to work scared now.

Today, in America, students and teachers pack their lunches, zip their school bags, go to school and die. They’re shot stepping off the bus, eating their Peanut Butter & Jelly, spinning their locker dial, and hiding quietly in closets like they were told.

In April of 1999, when I was 19, I sat in my Pennsylvania living room, watching students sprint out the double-doors of Columbine High School, across the green Colorado grass as police officers stood behind trees with leveled shotguns.

I, like most of America, was naive then. We believed that the massacre at Columbine High School was an isolated incident. An aberration. Two angry boys who slipped through the metaphorical cracks and found an armory of guns.

We said prayers, held hands and vigils and went back to school shaken but confident a tragedy like Columbine would never happen again.

It couldn’t. This was America.

Original artwork by Haley Armstrong

On Tuesday morning a student entered my classroom and announced there was another school shooting–the 17th school shooting in the first 11 weeks of 2018.

“Mr. Armstrong, did you know America now averages 1.5 school shooting a week?”

The closet in my daughter’s classroom is a long, narrow closet in the back of the room where the students hang their coats on little hooks and place their lunch bags on wooden shelves.

The closet has two doorways framed in white yet both are without doors. There’s no furniture inside the closets to hide behind. No bulletproof vests hanging from those little hooks. No trapdoors that drop the fourth graders into an underground tunnel system that mazes through the earth and branches into lite hallways that leads each child safely back to their bedrooms, leaving the booted intruder locked and loaded in an empty closet.

“Can you believe that Mr. Armstrong? Another school shooting.”

My daughter’s name is Haley. Cindy and I picked out the name months before she was born.  There was no debating. No coin flips. Our daughter would be forever Haley. And that was that.

Cindy was in labor with Haley for 16 hours. At one point the doctor peeked over Cindy’s knees and remarked how she refuses come out, “as if she’s hiding.”

As if, even before she was born, she was preparing for life in the American school system.

I cleared my throat, “Do you know where the shooting happened?”

“Somewhere in Maryland I think.”

“You think?”

“I’m sure. It was in Maryland.”

These are hard moments. Every time I learn about another school shooting I recoil and shake my head as if to say this is sad. This is so fucking sad.

What happened to the great American school experience that so many of us knew and enjoyed?

The one where you went to school and lived. The one where you pledge allegiance to a flag that you believed would protect you.

With all these dead children in the news, sometimes I feel guilty thinking about my daughter sitting at her desk, alive.

Right now she’s in math class–her favorite class. The teacher calls attention and spins and writes a multiplication problem on the board and challenges the class to solve it in under 30 seconds.

Haley flashes a smile. A smile that’s missing teeth but is unmistakably hers.

She tucks her blonde hair behind her ears and lets her pencil work the problem in her notebook.

The sun slants through the classroom windows on a fine American morning.

It’s spring outside. And a pair of eager yellow daffodils have pushed through the mulch outside her classroom and sway in the cool breeze.

And inside the classroom it’s warm and encouraging and my daughter is smiling. My daughter is alive and learning.

The way the great American school experience should be–always and forever.

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

I don’t think my daughter believes in Santa Claus anymore

Christmas morning is a great moment in parenting history.

The excitement. The smiles. Your children jumping and dancing and rejoicing because Santa Claus is real and he was really listening to their wishes and he was really watching as them clean their room, share their toys and muscle down broccoli all year long.

There’s wrapping paper strewn across the living room and the children are playing with their new toys. The fireplace is glowing and Frank Sinatra reminds you to have a merry little Christmas. Cinnamon buns rise in the over and hot chocolate rings your mug and you ease back into your favorite chair and smile as the moment unwraps itself before you.

Christmas morning, 2016

Then those children grow up.

They go to school and learn about things like distance and time. They learn about other countries and cultures. They study maps and spin globes. They realize there’s a lot of other kids in the world. They begin to privately  question the realness of a jolly old man and his high-flying reindeer.

And then one day some kid, usually one with an older sibling, confirms that the low voices coming from the living on Christmas Eve were in fact their parents spitting curse words while turning Allen wretches late into the night.

Haley is 9.

She reads Girls World magazine. She likes shopping at Justice, being lazy, has a pair of Unicorn slippers and finds her younger brothers to be mostly annoying, always disgusting.

Sometimes when she sings Ed Sheeran songs or explains the pH levels of solids I don’t recognize her. Sometimes when I hear her sing or talk and I’m sucker punched by time.

For the last few weeks her questions about Santa Claus have grown in both intensity and specifics. How does Santa fit all the toys in one bag? Since Santa only comes at night, how does he have time to visit all the kids in the world? And recently…Why does our new Elf on the Shelf have a tag hanging from her? Did you and mommy buy her at the store?

This is our Elf on the Shelf— Jesse. And yes, someone forgot to remove the tags.

Cindy and I know Haley’s belief is wavering. We may not want to accept the truth — but we know this is going to be her last Christmas of believing in Santa Claus.

She’s growing up. She’s starting to understanding matters of life. And that’s when the real parental work begins — teaching your children to believe when it seems there’s nothing to believe in.

What became of your belief in Santa Claus, is what became of your relationship with things like love and friendship. Once the initial magic of those things vanished — reality surfaced. And it was terrifying. You were experiencing the world in a rawer, more corporal way then ever before. You knew from this point on, your beliefs would be poked and prodded and on some days, ripped to shreds. And the act of believing, which was once so natural when you were a child, was now subjected to hard, daily practice.

When you learn the truth about Santa Claus, you learn a lot about life. When magic gives way to reality you feel disappointed, cheated and maybe little sad. But you’re young. You’ll recover. You just happened to learn a fundamental lesson of self-preservation— that in your moment of disbelief you still need to find a reason to believe.

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.