Fleeting Peace

It’s early. Too early for my sleep crusted eyes and cloudy mind. But duty calls: Simon, our Boston Terrier, needs to go outside. Jill fills her part of this morning routine. “The dog needs to go out,” she mumbles, her notification of Simon’s awakening and a call to action for me.

There’s nothing remarkable about this morning. Simon sniffs about the lawn, marking his territory, fierce descendant of wolves that he is. Content that his turf is dutifully claimed, we walk back to the patio and into the house where the kettle is near done warming its contents. Food gets put into the dog’s bowl, and is gone in seconds. Breakfast for Simon is not about enjoyment, it’s all about expediency.

I go about my other morning ritual, then bring both Simon (who’s afraid of stairs and refuses to go up or down them) and our coffee to our bedroom. After depositing Simon in his dog bed, I set the coffees on their respective side tables.

Jill is sleeping. I crawl back into bed, and she snuggles up to me, head on my chest, her breathing barely breaking rhythm. Light breezes come in through our open windows, flung about the room by the ceiling fan, creating the illusion of coolness. The humidity also makes its way in, the light rain outside unable to dampen its effects. We lay like this, Jill sleeping, me drifting off slightly to that blissful little place where you’re not entirely awake, but also not deep enough for dreams to take hold of you and tell you stories. I wake every so often, usually to the dog snoring as he does, snorty and loud. My arm is asleep now, and our skin is sticking to each other’s, another demonstration of humidity’s sly prowess. I’m still not fully awake, but my mind says “This is nice. Don’t move.” Strange notion for someone who is clearly uncomfortable.

The machinery inside my head comes more fully to the fore. I stay still. The sounds of the distant highway, its white noise hum, waft in the windows, too. There’s a few birds chittering and chatting. I open my eyes and look out the window. One of our large oak trees has been serving as a home for wood peckers for three years now as fewer and fewer leaves adorn its branches. A squirrel scurries up its trunk. Life is happening out there. Sometimes I forget that life isn’t just a human thing; there’s a myriad of living creatures moving in and out of our days. Our human experience has rendered these to the background for most. I only notice them when I get out of the constant thrum of thoughts and need to be active. I am a fidgeter by nature, in real life and online. Sitting still is not a skill I’ve had the ability to acquire.

I’m not alone in that. It’s challenging to be present and slow ourselves down, much less be still and take everything in. Incessant news cycles, world injustices, the lure of distraction from the awfulness that can engulf us, the desire to be right and make your points to someone who has no interest in real dialogue, the ever changing landscape of parenting teens and preteens. The bustle is so loud, the quiet doesn’t stand a chance to grab our attention.

There are moments, though, like this. Where natural elements gently remind you that there is more going on in the background, begging for your attention. Where the skin of your loved one is against yours, their trust in you absolute as they sleep in your arms. Where you don’t feel the pull of house projects and the need to be doing something.

They are rare and fleeting. For an hour this morning, I knew gratefulness and peace. I was still and mindful and it was beautiful.

Soon, the world will collapse this small cocoon of joy. The freneticism of life will demand I move, and I will meet its call. Hopefully I’ll take a second or two and recall the moment of this morning, smile, and move on to tackle the next crisis that presents itself. I’ll promise myself to slow down, and take things in. It’s a largely empty promise, as life tends to detest inactivity. But some day I will find it again, bask in it, and wonder why I don’t seek it out more.

Right now, though, I’ll milk this for all it’s worth.

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Unbalanced

The balance is weird.

In the beginning, it was all tilted my way. I was needed, damn it, and the requirements of me never dwindled. I was deified – a god amongst you – assuring you of your safety. I provided laughs, love, protection, and warmth.

Then, you decided that you had a world to explore and means to make that happen. I still mattered greatly, a guardian angel of sorts while you moved awkwardly about, trying to make sure your curiosity didn’t meet your demise. There were bumps and falls to be certain, but on the whole, I was there to save the day when needed.

Through the persistent exhaustion and the time that blurred past, the scales were yet in my favor.

Then, a new phase came to the fore, a daily routine where you garnered new friends and were bequeathed knowledge to shape you and your worldview – all given to you by strangers. While I weighed more heavily than these recent additions, the time I could be your champion was relegated to mornings, evenings, and weekends.

Your peers started intruding on my importance, eroding my stature, or at least, that’s how it felt. Hugs and kisses remained part of our bed time repertoire, thankfully. Public displays of affection waned. I lamented those moments would forever be passed off to memory, remnants of erstwhile yore.

The balance is uncomfortable.

The pillars of your days moved farther and farther from me. You shared stories with friends, and then with me if you were home and it struck your fancy. Screens filled your conscious because that’s where your tribe resides. I quibbled about how much you were reliant upon those tools to maintain relationships. In reality, I was jealous of their ability to take time from me and you.

The ongoing discovery of yourself in the roiling seas of tweendom filled me with pride. That pride rode shotgun with my fear. The fear that my role in your life would lessen as others became essential. However, I maintained some status of equality on this life’s see-saw, but only just.

Now, comes the hard part. There is no scale. No balance.

A fully fledged young adult; a teenager. You rightly came into your own, and yet, you struggle to define yourself, pushing of all manner of boundaries. Some are benign. Others keep me awake at night, worried about you functioning outside the safety and comfort of our home. You argue, mock, cajole, and at times, flat out insult me. This isn’t really a fault or something to blame you for. You are finding your way and putting me on notice that you are becoming who you’ve always been. I did not realize it until now.

Honestly, it stings. This person I’ve helped grow and develop pushing for autonomy from me. Surely this can’t be? Moments flare in my memory of you struggling to walk, seeking me out when the dark was too fearful to face alone, craving comfort from the world. Those days are largely gone now.

The scales are toppled over, equilibrium jettisoned in favor of staunch opinion and individuality. An occasional hug is fleeting salvation as I slide further into ignominy. While I ingest the ache of irrelevance, I do not blame you for moving forward. I’ve raised you to become this – a person who shares their feelings and thoughts, and goes out to live them. A child on the cusp of adulthood, ready to face its challenges and rewards. I am above all proud, even if my ego cringes at your new-found strength. Ultimately this was my goal all along. I can’t help but be wistful for the time I was your hero and the one you needed when things were uncertain. But that feeling will quickly morph into happiness that you are a force to be reckoned with. You will do great things in this world, I know.

My perception of the balance is weird, but it isn’t to you, and that’s as it should be.

Photo: Abby Thompson

Grace Is Gone

Sometimes I forget grace.

It is nearly everywhere, if we take the time seek it out. For me, that has become increasingly difficult in this age of relentless desideratum. The minute-to-minute war against feeding the outrage held against those we disagree with is exhausting. The desire to watch the latest “best show ever” is ceaseless and alluring. The need to bolster awareness to social issues of import, noting the progress and obstruction they face for planning activism accordingly is also bottomless, or so it seems.

However, grace hides in plain sight, resolute and available. It never holds a grudge at our ignorance but simply bides its time knowing that eventually we will wander back, anxious for the comfort it gives. There are many forms grace can take. It’s as malleable as we need it to be, filling us when we’re empty. It can be the laugh of a child, the tender way a lover grabs your hand, or a sweet breeze during a summer rain shower. Its flexibility alone is breathtaking.

As I so often do, I had forgotten grace the past few weeks. Life had been taking a non-linear path rather than my preferred straight line, inflicting stress with its untidy turns. I sought escape from these pesky intrusions. My phone was the perfect vehicle to launch me from my reality. It took up residency in my hand more than usual, offering so many ways to release my mind from the instruments of my dissatisfaction, and I was all too willing to accept the invitation. It is filled with the false promises of relief. Rarely does one put their device down, after having explored the phalanx of apps available, and truly feel at ease. Each click and scroll leads to less satisfactory reprieves; many times these said clicks lead to further anger and anxiety – two feelings distinctly not in the realm of relaxation.

This morning I chased the improbable again, my phone playing windmills to my Don Quixote.

Several unfulfilling moments later, I put my phone down as I prepared to make the trek to work, packing a lunch and making a cup of coffee for the journey. I kissed my wife, saying our “love yous” and goodbyes, and then walked to the door. As I reached for the knob, she said, “It looks lovely out. I bet you’ll have a nice ride in.” Those words, for whatever reason, stopped me. I turned to her and flashed my most winsome smile.

“I think so,” I replied.

On my commute, I found grace. Few might see the commute a place to find much of anything, but as I wove through the countryside of Upstate NY, I was given a reset button. This time of year, after the beauty of fall foliage and facing the onset of winter, is seen as boring and monochromatic with hues of brown dominating the landscape. But looking closer, there were other colors before me too. Not like the eye-popping brilliance synonymous with fall or the verdant abundance of spring, but subtle diversity was all around. Rolling farmland of earthy beiges interrupted by the yellowed stumps that once supported corn poking up from the ground, the same soil prepping itself for winter slumber. Mountains framed the valleys the road traversed, dark green fir trees freckling the grays of the rocks and sepia trees devoid of leaves. Sunlight dappled the uppermost parts of those mountains and trees, bringing to life that which seemed dormant. Birds dotted the cerulean sky in various specks of black and gray. Here, grace was everywhere. I drank deeply with my eyes and smiled. Jillian was right: it was a nice ride in.

Once at work, I was inundated with screens again, but this time out of professional necessity. Still, I occasionally closed my eyes for a moment here and there to replay the beauty shown on my way in, and I was able to experience that grace all over again.

All of us utilize our handheld wonders to distract us from the daily stress we face. In that capacity and if used wisely, they truly are a marvel of their own. Phones and tablets are not inherently bad. Inanimate objects rarely are. But the access to unlimited options is where we can, and often do, lose ourselves in rabbit holes into which we invariably tumble. I implore you to not let them use you. Look up once in a while. See, without the lens of technology, what lay before and around you.

I know I’ll forget grace again. At least it is never far from my grasp, awaiting my return. When I remember its presence, I’ll run to its embrace and bask in the warmth and acceptance it has to give. I’ll make promises not to forget grace again, knowing it’s an empty statement at best. I also know it doesn’t care if my promises are bereft, and its arms will be open wide when I return. Grace is non-judgmental, thankfully. We should all be so forgiving.

Opening My Eyes Inside

I’m still processing, still reeling.

All of those women, and a few men, coming forward to say they too had been touched by the foul hand of sexual harassment and assault. Each of their lives tainted with no regard for their autonomy or bodies.

My wife has suffered the horrors of sexual assault multiple times through her life. Not just harassment, which she’s had on a near daily basis, but full on assault and abuse. I’m certain she’s not the first woman in my life who’s endured such indignities, but she is the first one to talk openly and candidly about them to me. It sickens me every time the specter of those living ghouls resurface, ripping open wounds we so badly wished had permanently healed. Alas, gashes of the psyche rarely remain in slumber, they prefer to make their presence known just when they’ve been forgotten.

Perhaps that’s the most damning thing about the atrocities women face: the reliving of their ordeals, over and over. The fear and pain all can come flooding back in the merest of moments. For many, it is a permanent state of mind – the torture of knowing that when, not if, a man forces his desires upon them that society willfully will look the other way. Worse, it actively seeks out ways to blame them rather than the fiends that prey upon them. It is little wonder why so many women remain silent preferring a silent purgatory to a public one.

That’s the easy part of my processing. I am more fully aware of the overwhelming prevalence of the depraved notions of so many men. My eyes, previously shuttered because I wanted to believe in the goodness of men, have been opened. I can see its insidiousness more plainly, so I can step in and step up to combat it.

The hard part of my processing is the self-evaluation. The review of all my interactions with women, the dissection of my actions and words. While I’ve never raped anyone, I’m certain I’ve at the very least been coercive and persistent – traits I had inherited from the social norms and queues of my youth. I’ve cajoled, insisted, persisted. Even when it was clear, by actions or words, that my advances were unwelcome, I kept inveigling myself, believing as I had been taught that if she would just see what a great guy I am that she would at last be wooed.

As bad as that is, it is not the only way I’ve been ignorant. I’ve witnessed men clearly following women walking and said nothing. I’ve heard innuendo said in a meeting countless times. Behind closed doors, I’ve heard gross declarations of what men would “do” to various women they see, fully expecting zero pushback.

I was complicit in my silence. By not standing up for my fellow human beings, I allowed this festering boil to remain and allowed women’s fears to be realized. Through my inaction, misogyny kept its stronghold, and women were forced to accept their mistreatment and groping against their will and wishes. They were made to feel less than, inferior, powerless, and at fault. And I let it happen.

I admit my personality veers towards the non-combative. No longer can I lean upon that as a reason for cowardice. This is far bigger than me or my trepidations; this is about empathy and standing up for people when they may not have been able to fend of the slathering of a man. It’s not because I have a wife and daughters; it’s because women need our support. They need us to be their allies, someone who believes them when they sound the alarm and do not search for ways to push the blame onto them. They need advocacy, not doubt. I intend on being there for anyone who needs a hand and a voice.

I am deeply sorry for what I’ve done and what I’ve not done. I will do better from here on out. I will teach our sons to be better than I have been, to help them become advocates as well.

I see you all. I stand with you. I cannot change my past, but I can help shape the future, not only through my actions, but through my children.

We have work to do, men. Let’s get to it.

Photo credit: BlackDoctor.org

The Shame I Harbor

Deep in the recesses of my past, a bleak darkness hides. Few know of this chapter in the history of me, and that is by design. It is a source of shame, this black hole that devoured me and nearly dragged those I love down with me, whom I’m certain felt the substantial pull of it. They know the depths that it took me, how far into the abyss it dragged me down. They also know the will and fortitude it took to make my way out from under crushing weight of its control.

Nearly everyone I love knows. All except my children. They don’t have the faintest inkling of my degradation. Truth is, I’m terrified to tell them. Terrified that they will think less of me. Terrified that they will step back from me, fear in their eyes. Terrified that I’ll lose their love for me. Terrified that they will no longer see me as their father, but as something less.

I’m terrified to tell them that I’ve been in prison. That I was arrested and spent nearly a year of my life as an inmate.

What is even more worrisome for me is to tell them why I was incarcerated. I was an addict, but not in thrall to drugs or liquor. My demon was gambling. I am scared out of my wits that once they learn the truth of me, the ugly side of me, they will only see me as what I was, and not what I am. I was an addict, a junkie. What I am is a father. A husband. A man who’s worked his way out of a shit heap of my own making, and managed to build a life that is more than I ever thought possible.

Nearly 25 years ago, I was arrested two days before Christmas. I was thrown in a cell in Dauphin County Prison, which happened to be right near a mall. Over the next two days, while the prison classified me to put me in general population, I watched through bars of a murky window the scores of people and cars moving briskly to get gifts for their loved ones. I let each armful of presents that walked by rip a part of my soul out. I was a terrible human being, and this was my atonement.

I knew this was the truth because of everything I’d done to end up in the prison that I was locked in, physically and mentally. I’d stolen money to feed the beast within. I’d lied to friends. I’d taken from my family, uprooting all trust they had in me. In the throes of my addiction, I’d rationalized these actions, falsely telling myself that if I could just hit the big bet, win against the odds stacked against me, just once, that I could pay everything back, and all would be well again. But it never happened. No matter the lies I told others to deceive them, the checks I wrote on bank accounts I had no money in, the way I pretended to be a person who had it all together. I was an addict. I was a deceiver. A liar. A charlatan who preyed on others. I deserved whatever punishment I was given.

The day after Christmas, I made a promise to myself. I was going to get myself well. I believed that if I could do that, then over time and with diligence, then perhaps I could regain the love and trust of my family. I knew this would not be an easy road; it would be one fraught with rightful accusations and angry words. As much of a climb this would be to the mountain top of my redemption, I was going to persevere. My parents were the ones I needed to rebuild with the most. I’d taken money from them, even stole their credit cards. Though they never verbalized it, I knew they were devastated. I was determined to show them, through actions, not words – those I was gifted enough to use as a shield to my egregious behaviors – that I was the man they raised their son to be, not the craven thief I’d become.

I struggled mightily, working two full time jobs for most of the first year of my parole. Most days I was lucky to get 3 hours of sleep. I rented a room in a building in the poorest section of Harrisburg, because that was the most I could afford. I shared a kitchen and a bathroom with the other tenants, one of which threatened me because he suspected I took his ketchup. I walked to work almost daily, not having enough money to take the bus. This was the greatest challenge I’ve faced in my life to that point. I’d created this challenge through my own actions, and I was going to defeat it by my own actions. I worked hard at paying back the significant amount of money I’d stolen. And I worked even harder at proving to my family that I was no longer the pathological liar who had duped them at every turn.

It took years of demonstrating my rehabilitation, but I did exactly that. Years of barely scraping by, surviving on ramen noodles and PB&J sandwiches. Years of rebuilding the foundation of trust I’d so wantonly destroyed because I chased the darkness.

A lot has happened in my life since then. I’ve married, had two marvelous sons, got divorced, bought a house, sold a house, bought another house, remarried, added two fabulous daughters to my family. I’ve worked in corporate IT for close to twenty years. I’ve lived a life that I’m grateful for. I shouldn’t feel so overwhelmed to tell my children about the grand mistake I made years before any of them were even alive.

Yet… I do.

Logically, I know that my kids will love me regardless of my past. They’ll see how I am now, as a man and a father. They’ll know I love them and care for them beyond any measurement that exists. Emotionally, I’m petrified. Doubt sits in the background, casually inserting itself just enough into my thoughts to cause chaos. That’s its purpose, after all, and its skill is undeniable. The power is exerts is subtle and devastating.

My wife, my champion, stands resolute by my side. She understands my hesitation, yet steadfastly reminds me of the unlikelihood that my fears will come to fruition. She empathizes with the side of me that believes I’m unworthy of the love I crave from my family. She also shoots straight with me. She fights the leviathan that is my doubt with truth and unequivocal love. Doubt doesn’t stand a chance to against the brilliance that is her light.

So this weekend, I will sit with my children, the ones who I love and adore most, and explain to them the most unflattering season of my life. I will tell them about my past addiction and all the ugly ways it infested my life. And then I will await their questions (for there WILL be questions) and answer them as honestly and earnestly as I can.

I hope they’ll take my tale of struggle and apply the hard lessons I had to learn and endure and use them in their own lives. I hope the message of work ethic and perseverance wins out in their young impressionable minds.

I hope they won’t think less of me. I hope they’ll still see me as their father, less than perfect, but ever on their side.

I hope it will be easier for them than it has been for me.

Image credit:  Uno Mas En La Familia 

 

Scout’s (Dis)honor

The Boy Scouts of America have very straight forward descriptors about what it means to be a member of their organization: trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. There’s not much wiggle room to be had in their core message. Be a good person, and help those who can’t help themselves, basically. This organization has, from its outset, been a measuring stick for how we would like our boys and young men to grow up to be. As early as 10, these lads can be involved and learn these qualities as well as skills that they can use throughout their lives. They can participate until they are 18, and then are free to use the tools they’ve been given out in the real world, all before they can vote. Impressionable minds should be given such tools so that they can become outstanding citizens of not just America, but the world.

On Monday night at the largest gathering of Boy Scouts for the year, The Jamboree, these boys were given a message that was in every way contradictory to their values and credo, and by the President of the United States no less. He turned an evening that is supposed to be about extolling the Scouts in attendance (and even those that weren’t) on their accomplishments into a rally for himself. He swore in one of his opening sentences. He insulted the previous President (who was a boy scout in his youth), and waited for the crowd to boo Barack Obama as he knew they would be compelled to, as they were taught to respect their elders. He spoke at length about the last Presidential election, as he always does, despite the vast majority of Scouts not being old enough to cast a vote. He told an incoherent story of someone who lost their wealth, and framed it as a sad commentary on that person, as though being wealthy is all that matters in life. He regaled them with tales of his youth, at a cocktail party in New York City, well before any of them were born, saying that the “hottest people in New York” were at the party he was talking about. He talked about election night, how the map of electoral votes had so much red, how unbelievable it was. All of this after he said, at the very beginning of his speech, “Who the hell wants to speak about politics when I’m in front of the Boy Scouts?”

It was President Trump’s stereotypical speech; narcissistic, rambling, unrelated to the format and location and especially the audience. There was nothing he said that in any way represented the ideals of the BSA. He had no consideration for how his words could affect those young men. He only wished to push his agenda with no regard to whom he was yelling at. It’s a sad state of affairs that such things were stated in an effort to highjack the very minds we as a nation hope will engage and blossom as they breach adulthood and fan out in to the world.

I would say shame on you, Donald Trump, but shame is not anywhere in your heart or mind. Here’s hoping our youth can ignore the gall and pomposity our current President exudes and become the fine men we know they can be.

Profile In Avarice

When I was young and rather impressionable, I was told about the dangers of sin. Every Sunday, I was regaled with perilous stories about those who gave in to sinful behaviors from Sunday school teachers, relatives, and preachers. We, the youth of the town, were especially vulnerable, as we were not wise to the ways of the world according to our elders. They had life experience, so they knew better. Because their age was greater than ours, we should heed their warnings. Why, there was even a list of sins we should avoid; seven of them, to be precise. Adding to their terrifying power was the fact that they were denoted as “deadly.” Fearful things, indeed. Our developing minds committed them to memory and we promised to avoid them at all cost.

I’m far older now, and not prone to unrealistic expectations. I’ve dabbled in sinful behaviors throughout my years as most of us have. I’ve survived those dalliances with sin, and have even come to understand that some of them are useful to some degree, and others are rather tame in moderation. Yet they are still considered sins and theoretically require some sort of atonement for committing them. We use these sins as a yardstick for measuring the goodness of people.

If avoiding these avarices is the standard we use to hold those we respect accountable, then what do we do when someone not only commits these misdeeds but doesn’t apologize for their transgressions? What do we do when they believe they are entitled to do so, and continue to pursue them fervently? What if that particular person was in a position of great power and influence, and even proclaimed a higher power condoned their actions? What if that person continued to violate the promise we made as kids?

What would this person do with the Seven Deadly Sins?

Greed: They might continue to pursue wealth, even though their position is as a public servant makes profiting from the strength of their position illegal.

Lust: This person may believe that their status and fame means they can foist their sexual advances upon on anyone they choose, regardless of their feelings or interest.

Sloth: Instead of taking on the duties they swore to uphold, maybe they choose to partake in some activity they enjoy instead. Golf, perhaps.

Envy: This individual will most likely cozy up to those with power, no matter their standing in the world, purely because they bend people to their will, even praising deeds those leaders enforced that most would consider heinous.

Pride: It would not be a stretch to think this person would insist on compliments to stroke their considerable ego, even going so far as to hold rallies so their followers can shower them with adulation and praise that they so desperately need.

Wrath: Conversely, anyone who did not agree with and praise this individual endlessly would be denounced as being illegitimate. They may even go so far as to say the disagreeing party spouted lies no matter the considerable proof behind their statements, simply because they refused to give loyalty to this person without valid reason.

Gluttony: They have a love for fast food and publicly endorses them. They probably order steaks well done with ketchup. If that isn’t gluttony, then I don’t know what is.

Fortunately, we don’t have anyone like that running our country.

Wait…we do?

Shit.

Master of Peeves

A tablet left on the couch, awaiting destruction by an unsuspecting person who blindly sits down. Endless cords and chargers, always left plugged in, with nary a device to send its replenishing current to. Dishes abandoned in places no dishes should be, the household equivalent of a grocery cart toppled over on an empty playground .  A minefield of shoes and book bags left at the door, requiring entrants to navigate an obstacle course that more often resembles Wipeout than American Ninja Warrior. And of course, the perpetual challenge of putting toilet paper in its rightful place.

These are a few of my least favorite things.

In fact, these seemingly innocuous childlike actions are my most infuriating things.

Taken individually, these are nominal indiscretions. Collectively, they engorge my rage gland to bursting. One by one, each indignity pushes my anger level upward until I explode, Mount Vesuvius-style, expletives and bluster spewing forth in a majestic display. After the initial grand eruption, grumbles sputter out the sides of my mouth, embarrassment overriding aggravation, my mood cooling like so much magma meeting the air. The only way to save face is to retreat to some other location, irritation mingling with shame, faux complaints mumbled incoherently.

Sadly, this is not the end of this disaster. Now that my personal volcano has let loose, so it must bubble beneath the surface I privately stew on the heinous infraction (or so I have built it up to that level in my mind) that caused me to blow my figurative top.

“Haven’t I asked them to not do those things hundreds of times?”

“Have I not been clear enough in my fire and brimstone diatribes?”

“Don’t they respect me enough to extend the smallest of efforts to keep me from going ballistic?”

“We provide so much for them. How is it too much to ask to do the most menial of tasks ?”

This is my jukebox of justification, and it plays all the hits, over and over again. Its cyclical nature ensures that I stay ever-livid, rage boiling just below my exterior. I am dangerous, a smoking crater of exasperation that can erupt at any moment.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. Not so long ago, my wife put to me a question that shook me: “Where is that happy-go-lucky guy I met all those years ago?” She had a valid point. Upon a time I was a devout believer in the mantra “Don’t sweat the small stuff…and it’s all small stuff.” Now a simple misplaced cup will launch me into a soliloquy on the virtue of responsibility as if that one cup will be the fulcrum that pushes our kids down the road to ruin.

Where has that man gone? The one who always saw the glass as half full (regardless of its location), the one who wore a grin like it was his favorite shirt? The cheerful one, the one who exuded glee and happiness?

That man had kids that became teenagers. The age of confusion and hormones. When the journey to discovering themselves, physically and otherwise, begins. Chaos reigns in their minds, even if they are awash in smugness when you are bestowing wisdom upon them. We’ve been there too, feeling like we understand the world so much better than our parental units while alternately being thoroughly confused at who we are supposed to be. Tumultuous and righteous, they are grappling with themselves and the two worlds they live in: the real and the digital. It’s a lot to ask a developing human at their most vulnerable stage mentally and emotionally to be perfect in their actions. They are coping with hurdles most parents of teens have not had to contend with: crafting and honing an online persona in the midst of figuring out their lives in our tactile existence. On those grounds alone they deserve far more leeway for missteps than I have allowed.

Yet, despite these truths, I have done little in the way of granting such graces. I’ve done mostly the opposite, letting minuscule peeves rule my days and nights with our kids. I’ve allowed perceived slights fester within, squashing the good man, the happy man, the man who found joy in life and his family. Perhaps my offspring aren’t the only ones weathering the internal storm of upheaval .

There is certainly an appropriate time and place for frustration to show with your kids. It is healthy for them to see you upset, and understand the why of the disappointment or irritation with their action or inaction, especially in the moment. Family is rarely Rockwellesque; it tends to be more in the vein of Dali. Strange and odd, but all the more lovely for its natural eccentricities.

Armed with the understanding of my teenagers’ challenges as well as my own, I will try to lessen the grip of the wee things that wriggle their way under my skin. I will endeavor to keep in mind that we are all imperfect, and that is OK. Of course I’ll slip up. I’ll burst at the seams here and there, regressing into the easily agitated father role that I’ve lived in as of late. But I will, over time, quell the dweller of peeves within, and return the volcano to dormancy.

 

 

 

Sea of Imposters

The bustling of bodies seems frenetic. I know there is purpose to their movements; indeed, their purpose is mine. But I am in a city foreign to me amongst those who have honed their skills and studied their craft, and I am hoping to glean knowledge from them. I’m not overwhelmed, not exactly. What I am is petrified.

“You don’t belong, you know.” The dreadful passenger that is my constant companion lends its voice to my fears. I’m rarely without its insistence.

“Everyone will figure you out. You’ll be known as the fraud you are.” The faces passing by are friendly, their eyes meeting mine with a smile attached. I nod and smile back, even eke out a few hellos to those who are familiar. I do not let the terror show, the one that rides with me no matter where I am. I fervently worry that those scuttling past me, or worse, those who stop to share a word or a handshake or a hug will hear that dreadful passenger and know the truth. That I am a charlatan, a sham. A trickster.

I am an imposter.

There has never been a moment where someone outside of my mind has heard that voice. Not a single instance of accusation from another human being. You’d think that without any sort of substantive proof that I’d be able to silence the dreadful passenger. To annex him to a dark cell and seal him off from any input in my thought processes. This is his true genius. He needs no proof. He can manufacture doubt from nothingness, and it will CONSUME me. The skepticism runs quickly through my nerves and bloodstream. It renders me motionless, afraid to move. As if stillness will shield prying eyes and minds from my fraudulence.

I am a writer, or at least that is who I am when I am here. I am also a father, like nearly everyone else is here.

Here happens to be Dad 2.0 Summit, a conference for dads who are telling their stories and sharing their lives through an array of mediums. Writing, video, photography….all ways these folks are presenting their journeys through parenthood. Lending themselves bare for all to see. Like I am. Ostensibly I am part of this clan. Yet the dreadful passenger tries to foil my membership with this community.

“Look at how popular they are.”

“They’re so much more successful than you are. You’re not on their level.”

“Why would you think that they’d want to talk to you? You’re nobody.”

“You can’t even get a hundred people to like one of your posts.”

He’s had years of practice to cut my confidence down in mere seconds. Fear and insecurity are his weapons, and he uses them with utmost precision. Attacks are brutal and swift and devastating. He doesn’t limit his ruthless barbs just to occasions like this. He’s omniscient. Nothing is out of his reach for comment. Parenting. Writing. Being a husband. Self-perception. What I eat. What I drink. How I love. Every crevice of my existence is available for his special brand of critique. He pulls no punches and takes no quarter. He lords over my self-esteem and pounds it to dust when he deems I’m challenging his rule.

Normally when his sharp words play in my head, I’d shrink into myself and try to quell the uncertainty raging within. But this time I allow the sea of peers to push and pull me about, adrift on camaraderie and compassion. The more I let myself bounce along the ebbs and currents of support and relatability, the quieter that voice becomes. He is losing this round, and it enrages him. He launches a final salvo.

“See all these men? They’re REAL dads. Look at you; you’re a terrible father. You sacrificed a weekend with your kids to come to a conference to be with people who know you don’t matter? Huh…some dad you are.”

That’s an uppercut to my psyche most days.

But this is not a day for hammer blows to my confidence. The waves move me towards kindred souls.

Thom, a warlock with words, seeks me out. We share stories and a few drinks. He compliments my writing and my family. I’m more than a bit floored by his generosity. Hugs and handshakes, and we carry on conversations with others who want to share their lives bare and fully.

I talk with my friend Scotty, who tells of a horrific past that you’d never suspect. He’s a humorous sort, quick with a smile. The adoration he has for his children explodes from my phone each time I see it. Tears are spent from both our eyes. His courage is immeasurable, and I’m proud to know him.

Then there’s Spike who’s a whirling dervish of ideas. We’ve had many a conversation via text and good-old-fashioned-honest-to-goodness phone calls. We’ve never met, but he and I sit in adjoining chairs, whisky in hand, catching up and casting story ideas off each other like we were college roommates. The good kind though, not the creepy ones that you invariably got assigned to for your first semester. He makes my mind buzz with creativity and the desire to commit to the concepts moving around my head at mach speed.

My roommates for this excursion, Ryan and Dan, two men I’ve never met nor hardly had spoken to prior to arriving, were sincere and hilarious, combinations not normally found together. I feel fortunate to have known them briefly there, and thankful for the friendships we’re constructing.

I have heard speakers on a large stage talk about being bullied; I’ve been in small rooms with fathers sharing their deepest fears and troubles with each other. Judgment was not cast. Empathy was the rule of the day, each day, that I was in attendance. Bonding was not a big enough word to encompass what was happening here.  It was a collective, a commune, a brotherhood.

The last night I was there, I was lucky enough to be present for a conversation between two men I admire more than I can express. Two utterly different fathers talking through their experiences. A black father who remarried and is now part of a blended family consisting of black and white children, and a married gay father with one son. They related. They regaled each other with the common struggles all parents face. They were both fathers. The rest of the descriptors I gave? None of that mattered in that moment. Or any moment, really. We were all parents, all striving to be the best parents we could be. Each one of us wanting to raise responsible, well-adjusted children that could succeed and flourish when released from the relative safety of our wings.

As I was awash in the realization of how we are all connected by the threads of fatherhood, it dawned on me: the dreadful passenger was silent. He had nothing to combat the sense of belonging I felt. Especially knowing through so many wonderful and intriguing conversations, no matter how brief or elongated, that I was not the only imposter here. I was surrounded by imposters. We all felt the niggling doubts regarding the ways we parent; how we addressed challenges; how we uttered phrases by our parents that we’d all swore we’d never levy against our own offspring.

Yet here we all were, at Dad 2.0 Summit, each seeking to silence our own dreadful passengers and become the fathers we should be and our children deserve.

Self-doubt be damned, we’re going to get there.

Photo credit: Flickr:Wild_and_Natural

Ritual As Love

Light pushes between my eyelids, announcing a new day. For a few seconds my eyes battle the morning, wanting more time to dream. Ultimately, morning wins as it always does, and I blink away the remnants of rest. A small stretch follows, soft grunts escaping me. These are the songs of age that come with the years I’ve amassed.

That very same light bathes my sleeping wife, highlights and shadows playing upon the face I love so. It is serene, idyllic, and beautiful – that face.

She is perfection in the dawn. So perfect that I dare not disturb that vision.

I slide my legs out from under the comforter, an exaggeratedly slow action of putting my feet to the floor and gradually raising my body off the bed. This goes much clumsier than I would have liked. A glance back reveals my lack of gracefulness hasn’t awoken her. Steady and rhythmic breaths come and go – telltale signs slumber still has her under its spell.

Awkwardly, I tiptoe out of the room hoping that the carpet will mask my steps. The remainder of the way is pure hardwood, old and unforgiving, and unconcerned with my need for quiet. My first tentative step elicits a creak and I freeze. I look back to insure my wife has not awoken. Still no break in her breathing which gives me hopes that my quest can continue. I resume tip-toeing, navigating to the steps. The descent is a chorus of complaints from the wood, each one making their best effort to expose my secretive trek. There’s no way of knowing if the floor has given me away, so I keep moving. I lightly step through the living and dining rooms and finally reach my destination: the kitchen.

My ritual can now begin in earnest.

I reach for the kettle to test its weight. It’s roughly a quarter full, so I migrate to the sink and fill it. When water finally reaches the rim, I shut off the faucet and return the kettle to its home. Switched on, the heater under the kettle coaxes the water to boil – a crucial element to the ritual.

I fetch two mugs, stoic receptacles awaiting their prize, and set them down next to the now-heating kettle. A small mason jar of sugar yields its contents to the mugs; one spoonful for her, two for me.

The ritual continues with final preparations.  The French press now is pulled to the fore. A container of coffee offers its contents for use. Six level scoops are dropped into the French press and await the steaming water to rain down and release its potential.

The water reaches its penultimate boil, signaling the time to join the roiling water with the inert coffee grounds. I do just that and am rewarded with the smell of java and caffeine, a partnership of elementals that fill the air. A spoon moves in circles in the press, creating miniature whirlpools of foam and coffee. I pull the spoon out, satisfied that union is complete. For a moment, I watch the eddies and swirls move about, fighting for supremacy.

I settle the lid on the press and gently push down. The key is to go slowly so no grounds find their way free. After what seems to be an interminable amount of time, the pressing is done, plunger at the bottom compressing the grounds.

Holding the lid and plunger in place, I pour the coffee into mugs which have been waiting patiently for its passenger. I pour hers first. I always do, but I can’t say why. Hers I fill to the brim, or as near as can be. Mine, I leave a bit of room for a splash of milk. My wife needs no such accompaniment. She prefers her coffee strong and stark; mine, not so much. Milk is poured into mine, and then both are stirred. Hers is a dark mocha; mine is caramel colored. At last, the ritual is close to complete. Now for the final part of my stealthy journey: deliverance.

Across the hardwood I go again, trying and mostly failing to avoid parts that protest my weight. As I reach the steps, a smile escapes my lips. This happens each time I begin my ascent back to our bedroom. The smile of anticipation looking forward to that face I adore giving back its own smile, dreamy and struggling to remain before a yawn overtakes.

The steps groan just as loudly as they did when I first made my way down them for my morning ritual. I send a disapproving scowl at the wood, but it pays me no mind and continues to do what floors of its age do. Just a few more steps to the relative quiet of the rug floor of our bedroom.

Cautious steps carry me to the rug, wary of both noise and spillage. Now that I am back at the beginning, I bring the coffee to her side of the bed and set the mug down on her night stand. I touch her face, lightly caressing it, and just as lightly, “Good morning, my love. I brought you coffee,” as I lean down and kiss her.

The smile she gives is as lovely as I envisioned. It always is. And it is unfailingly worth it.