Thursday, November 27, 2008

50th post: Thanksgivings on a year

This is my 50th post in this space.

I have gone through a great deal of changes in the past year. I left my career in education. I moved my family about as far away from New Jersey as you can go. I chose to be a stay at home parent. I moved way outside what was my comfort zone. It’s been quite an eventful year.

Reflecting on a year is a daunting task. A year ago today, I was cooking Thanksgiving dinner for our family, while working with the wife to manage our impending move, and attending the PG/PHS Annual Football game, as was my responsibility as AD/AP of PGHS. It was my final official function. It was fun to do, and there are days that I miss that connection to the kids and their lives. That PG is in the State finals is wonderful, and I’m happy for the kids and school.

I received a nice send-off from the school and staff. While there are days I miss it, it seems very much like it was another life ago, or even like it was someone else’s life entirely. With a year under my belt now, I realize that my life has changed so much…no-that’s not it. I have changed. I feel like I could go back to that work, and that I could be good at it and feel rewarded by it. Maybe someday I will. I just don’t know that I want to.

I’ve lamented at times both in this space and elsewhere, about the transition to living here in Hawaii. It was a very difficult time when we first arrived-living in that windblown apartment in Waikiki was a mess: Five people living in a two bedroom apartment for a month was not good. But we managed.

Our first few months in our new house were challenging too. Many of our neighbors did not speak to us, and some still don’t. But we’ve made enough friends here that we make it work, and don’t feel as isolated as we did when we first arrived. I don’t get the “stink eye” anymore at the store, or about town. Seems like we are pretty much taken as residents in most cases now. We've come to some level of peace about being here. It's odd now to think back to the fact that I almost got into a fistfight in the Honolulu Library.

I still want a piece of that guy though...but that was another post.

As I look at it though, the biggest change for me has clearly been the life I now have with my children. I’m with them all the time, and although being a “stay at home dad” has proven to be far more of a challenge than I had initially anticipated, I now have the chance to have a relationship with them that I simply did not and would not have ever had the chance to have back home.

In light of that, I thought I would share some moments that I’ve had with them of late. These are moments that I know would never have happened in our life before.

-I took the kids to Chili’s for a birthday lunch last week. As you may know, I do a few shifts a week there as a server, and so they are very familiar with the cuisine and the people. We always get the Chips and Salsa, as everyone likes it. While we were there, the Boy picks up two chips and presses them together, handing them to me, saying, “Here Daddy-I know your favorite is when they stick together.” He’s right of course.

-Driving home from school the other day, the twins were talking about octagons and hexagons and pentagons, and the Little Bear, looking at a stop sign said, “Octagon Daddy!”

-All three of them just this morning took all of the cushions off of the couch, and put them one after another in a line. It was then a train, and they took turns moving from one cushion to the next calling out “chugga-chugga-choo-choo.”

-At the Zoo last week, the twins were able to discuss the fact that the Hippos are herbivores and the Komodo Dragon is a Carnivore. And of course, they reiterated the fact that a “Prehensile tail” means it can grab onto stuff.

-As we drove past the Ala Moana Mall last week, the kids all were pleased to see the Gigantic Santa atop the main building. When I said, “Hey kids, it’s Santa…” they replied… “No Daddy…it’s Santa CLAUS….” and I could actually hear the rolling of the eyes.

-I took the boy to the ER today. Bonked his head and ended up needed two stitches. No big whoop. But he was amazing in how he handled everything. He’s a very different kid when he’s flying solo. Until I had to hold him down so they could stitch him up, a privilege I’ve enjoyed with all three kids now, he and I were having a lot of fun just hanging out. He was pretty upset with me after he got stitched up, but a timely purchased bag of Oahu’s own “Famous Amos’ Chocolate Chip Cookies” from the vending machine managed to stave off a more dramatic tantrum. Mahalo Wally!

-All three of the kids have done great in their swimming lessons.

-They can name the members of the E Street Band.

-They know that Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, and Blues Traveler are all from New Jersey.

-I’ve learned that there is a whole world that operates outside the confines of the school calendar and clock. It’s really something to be at home with my kids at 9:30 am on a Wednesday and talk to them about what they want to do. I remember a time in my life when 9:30 am simply meant a change in classes.

-When I asked them today what they were thankful for, being Thanksgiving and all, I received the following litany of blessings: The Girl is thankful for Lights, stars, trees, her Pinky Dog, Mommy and her brother and sister, and for, as she said verbatim “I am thankful for everything, Daddy.” The Boy was thankful for many of the same, but also his Blue Doggie, Spider Man, and for his shadow. The Bear was too busy running back and forth and all over to reply in a serviceable manner.

What’s more, and this may be the point I’m somewhat driving at, is that I know my children now. I suppose I knew them back when I was working full time in some manner, but not in the way I do now. I don’t say any of this to say that one cannot be a good parent and still work-my wife manages it, so I know it’s possible. I just know that I was spending a great deal of my heart and soul in my work in education, and that there was no way I could have kept doing what I was doing and still have the connection to my children that I now enjoy.

I don’t know, honestly, how good of a stay-at-home parent I really am. There’s no annual review, no online quiz, no immediate feedback available. Who would have thought that I’d miss my annual evaluations…

My performance will be judged in many ways by the kind of kids they turn into, and that judgment is to be years in the making. I do hope though that the choices that I’ve made, to be with them, turn out well. I’ve seen way too many amazing things from my children to think that this was not the right thing for me. I hope that it turns out to be the right thing for them as well.

Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for reading. Feedback is always welcome.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Mining the journals in celebration of a month of anniversaries

The little bear just turned two.

The twins turn four this week.

The wife has a birthday coming up. I’ll leave that one alone…

At the end of this month, it will be a year since I retired from education to become a stay at home parent.

Next month, it will be a year since we moved to Oahu, and a year since I started writing in this space.

I thought it might be interesting to revisit some things I’ve written in past journals, as they relate to the events that are upcoming.

Thinking back on the twins birth, it was a chilly day in South Jersey, where we were living, and in Philadelphia where they were born. Heidi had spent the night before in the hospital, and I went home to care for our dog, Gracie. The doctors told us they would likely induce in the morning.

So I went home for a bit, and woke up about 4am to drive back into Philly. The twins were born at 1:57 and 2:00 PM respectively. The following is from a journal I kept at the time, slightly edited for readability:

1:05 PM. Been here since about 5am. I spent a long time here last night and she spent the night. Her parents are now at our house.

The Ohio State vs. Michigan game is on-Touchdown Buckeyes just as I write this.

I know this is happening, and I’m excited, but I keep wondering how I’m going to feel when the babies come out. Wife’s been a trooper through this all. Thirty-seven weeks today, and what a journey this has been--a year ago we were struggling with getting pregnant, and today we are hours away from parenthood. What a dramatic turnaround.

I imagine the wife and I will feel different after they get here, but I wonder other things too-who will they be? What will they become? Will they like us? What kind of parents will we be?

I already know I love them, but who will Heidi and I become once they are here? Will we be good at teaching them about the world? Will they be happy?

The wife has been really something-she’s going to be a great mom-she’s worked so hard to get our world ready for them.

I’m still a little nervous about everyone’s health. Everyone says they are perfect, but I probably won’t feel totally OK until everyone is settled and OK. I know I tend to harbor a bit of fear about medical stuff, and this time is no different. It’s just who I am-as excited as I am, I am a bit nervous as well. Part of having lived the life I have I suppose.

These residents at the hospital are just so anxious to do stuff. It’s cute.

I’m excited, but I’ll feel better when they are here and they are OK and so is the wife.

The twins arrived shortly after I finished that last sentence. Upon reflection, there’s nothing ground-breaking there I know-typical first time parent jitters I suppose, but to think about who I was then, and who I am now gives me a great deal of pause. Just reflecting on the young man who sat in that chair makes me smile a bit, as he had no idea what was in for him.

That the twins will be four is incredibly exciting and somewhat humbling. For that much time to pass that fast is mind-boggling. It really might as well have been yesterday that I was falling asleep with my head precariously balanced on the top of their crib watching them sleep because I was afraid they might roll over and need help.

The wife and I were so nervous about them eating enough and pooping enough that we kept a daily flow chart to track these things.

I remember the first time I left the house with them in the stroller, I called the wife at work from the corner, a good 100 feet from our house saying, “I made it to the corner! Should I keep going?”

We were afraid of everything that first go-round, which I suppose is not that uncommon. It certainly set the stage for the Bear, who celebrated her second birthday this week, and had promptly decided that there are certain times of the day when it is unacceptable to wear pants.

Regardless of where we are…She’s benefited from our experience, in that we developed a clear “walk it off” policy just in time for her to start running into things. She’s learning new words every day, knows many of her colors, numbers and letters, and has decided that her favorite thing to do, outside of occasionally running full speed into random walls, is to give hugs, some of which get a running start.

I’m a big fan of this. The hugs I mean. The running into walls things is, um, well, it’s pretty damned funny. She likes to dance with her sister and plays nicely with the twins in a variety of ways.

In thinking about the end of my career, I revisited the journal that I kept during our house-hunting trip in October ‘07. Heidi and I stayed in Waikiki for a week looking for a home and setting up temporary housing for when we arrived in December. I write the following while sitting at the bar at “Da Big Kahuna Bar and Grill,” after a very pleasant conversation with a member of the United States Air Force, who happened to be from Philadelphia, of all places. This is again slightly edited for readability:

My career will take a hit, that’s without a doubt. But I don’t know what I want it any more anyway as although I’ve had loads of fun and I’ve been blessed to know a lot of great kids and people, I don’t know what I can point to any time where I was genuinely happy.

Just because I’ve had some success at something does not mean that I should do it. I suppose it’s possible that I’m not that good at it at all, but who’s to say?

I’d like to think my Dad would have been supportive of all this, but this month marks seventeen years since he died. I’ve spent as much time with him in my life as without him. I am not my Dad-not even a little. Did I go into education because of him? Was there somewhere else I was supposed to go?

I’ll never know what he would think-he never deviated from the Philly/New Jersey area his whole life. Don’t know that I can argue with that, except to say that we have made a new choice.
It was right at the Anniversary of his death that I wrote that, so I’m not surprised that I was thinking of him in the context of the move and my career. Truth be told, I don’t miss it anymore. I don’t know if I’ll ever go back.

In terms of becoming a stay-at-home dad, I pull again from the House-hunting trip journals, and share with you, gentle reader, this chestnut that I wrote while making a pilgrimage to “Don Ho’s Island Grill,” God rest his Groovy soul. The entry references a hike I did earlier that day at Diamondhead Crater.

I really got excited at Diamondhead, on the way down. I get to raise my kids! I get to take all the energy and focus and TIME that I’ve been giving to school after ungrateful school all these years and focus on our family. I get to be my kids’ teacher. I get to see them grow up and I am going to help them have a lot of fun doing it. All of my creativity can go into feeding and teaching and loving my family.

Now, we may get here and just not do well-I suppose it’s possible, but I think that as long as we are together, we will be alright. And, as I’ve said, unless we fall in love with life here, this, although beautiful, is temporary if we want it to be.

I’m really glad I found this section, as truth be told, I need to remind myself of the above-that we have a tremendous opportunity as a family to be together and it’s an opportunity I did not have when I was working. The wife’s job gave us the chance to come here, and one year later, though there have been bumps in the road, some of them pretty hefty (I may reflect on those bumps next month…stay tuned), I am glad we came here. I have worked harder than I ever have in my life as a stay-at-home parent. In all honesty, that surprised me. I knew it would be a challenge, but I was probably a little cavalier about it at the start.

And truth be told, I’ve occasionally fallen into some of the patterns that made life more difficult when I was working full time--too much caffeine, not enough sleep, taking on more than I can handle…Last July, I wrote a column about falling into the “Perilous Patterns” that lead to stress and anxiety and overwork, and the like. I’m still waiting on Brett Favre’s response to that one, by the way. I reference it here as a reminder to myself if nothing else to continue to reflect on the challenges and how one copes with them.

So here, on the cusp of all these birthdays and all these anniversaries, I need to remind myself of not only what I walked away from and why I was ready to do so, but also what I chose to walk towards, which is this family, in this place.

Guess that’s the funny thing about birthdays and anniversaries: they always seem to put it all back in focus on the things that mattered, because they have always mattered. And will do so year after year.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

But what will you do? Thoughts for the President-Elect, by way of Trinity Church, sorta.

Jean was a pillar of our church as I was growing up. She was the Lay Reader Emeritus, so to speak, and she was that because she was simply the best and cared the most about that particular ministry. She was an extraordinary woman who I was fortunate to know.

Earlier in her life, she had been a Broadway performer, and had worked with Ray Bolger, if memory serves. She later was married to a gentleman of significant means and influence. I once visited the New Jersey Governor’s mansion on a class trip, and saw a clock there, with a plaque saying it had been donated by her. That was wicked cool.

I know that she received regular correspondence from the Queen Mother. For real. I visited her home, and she shared it with me. Amazing penmanship that Queen Mother.

I’m thinking of her today, and I’m thinking very much of the last time that I saw her. My mother and I visited her in her home. She was elderly at this point, but my father had died, and she had adored him. She had not been well enough to attend his services.

My dad had been head acolyte at church, while she was in charge of Lay Readers, and he treated her with the deference that only my dad could. She thought he was “timeless” and I’ll never forget the way she said that when she described him.

I still think of Jean every Christmas, and Easter, and every other major holiday in the Church Calendar, as those were the events that Jean would read the lessons herself. The last Christmas my father had was one of our best: He was the Crucifer for the clergy, which meant he led them in carrying the cross. I was the Crucifer for the Choir, and at one moment, on Christmas Eve, after I had led the choir in, in front of a packed Midnight Mass audience, as the choir had been seated, and I was to step aside for the clergy to enter the sanctuary, it was just him and I, both dressed in full crucifer robes, which I’m happy to say were pretty kick-ass, standing in front of one another. I dipped my cross to him, and he dipped his back, and we were all business. We’d done it before, and we would do it again in the months before he got sick, but that moment on Christmas Eve stands out to me as a moment that he and I shared in a place and a time that will always matter to me. It was Christmas Eve 1989. It was the last one I would have with my dad, and it was a really amazing moment that he and I never spoke of.

And John played “Silent Night” on the bells in the tower, and it reminded us all of the fact that he had been doing it for years, including the December that he lost his youngest son a few weeks before Christmas. These were the things that mattered, and they mattered because we all shared in them.

And Jean read that night. She was the voice of that congregation, and to be honest, I listen for her in every Lay Reader that I am subjected to, and likely will continue to do so. She was a special lady, and I’ll leave it there, lest I get further a field of what I’m actually trying to talk about.

We went to visit Jean a few months after my Dad died. She was dressed to the nines-it was after New Years, so she had her Holiday Cards on the gigantic Grand Piano in her parlor. The cards included some from current President Bush, former President Reagan, the Queen, Her mother, and others, before she snapped at me to come over and talk to her.

I’d not had a lot of solo interaction with Jean, accept the one time I was a participant in the Passion reading around Easter, which she directed. As I recall, she asked that I “not speak as though I’m chewing marbles,” and “Say it five times MORE than you think you should say it.” So, as I sat with her, and my mother in her sitting room, which as I recall looked out on an expanse of trees and fields that I was not aware existed in central New Jersey. And we chatted for a while, and then, clearly having decided pleasantry was done, looked to my mother and said, regarding my father’s death:

“What Happened?”

I remember being surprised by the emotion that carried her words. She seemed genuinely upset. I was still just a kid, and still myself only a few months away from having just eulogized him in front of the congregation he so loved, as did Jean.

My mother explained that he had developed a cancer that turned out to not be treatable, and while he had fought it, he died. My mother seemed to know that a simple and direct answer was the way to go, and Jean listened, and then sat for what felt like to teenage-me an eternity. She looked away, off into the parlor of her home, and then nodded her head, as though she had processed and accepted the story for the first time, and yet projected a dignity that was palpable. She nodded again and then looked at me.

She titled her head at me. She was an older woman by this point, but you could tell that she had been even more beautiful in her day, and not just because of the myriad of photos of her with famous people that were copiously sprinkled throughout the house. I felt like her eyes were piercing me as she looked at me, the son of a man she genuinely respected through our church, and she narrowed her eyes, as though looking at me for the first time.

“And what about you then?” she asked. “What about you?”

As I remember that moment, I remember feeling caught off guard, but at the same time I felt some relief that someone had asked something about me and been direct about it, as opposed to talking about me as though I weren't in the room, which happened a lot back then. My initial response was not memorable…

“Um…well…” and that was my reply to this great woman…

“Um…oh dear. We know you are handsome dear…” she said, while she not only patted my arm gently, but also rolled her eyes, but only a little;

“But, I wonder what will you do?”

What will you do?

That meeting, which was the last time I saw her alive, has been in my mind a great deal of late, and was in my mind almost daily when I was working in education.

The answer I gave her, after a long stretch, was that I thought I might teach, or do music, or act or something, but that I was going to go to school and figure that out.

I remember telling her that my dad was a teacher, and that my mom and uncle and grandmother had taught, so that seemed like a good place to start, and she seemed pleased by that. I made a comment that I thought that, with “all that in my family history, maybe I could be good at it, or at something.”

She listened and nodded again, and then looked me dead in the eye, and said;

“See that you do, young man. See that you do.”

While there was some chitchat, that was essentially the end of our meeting.

I’ve tried to do what she told me, and truth me told, I can’t think of her without thinking of that last Christmas Eve with my Dad.

Between my time in public and private education, I honestly feel like I’ve done some good work. I’ve had some amazing students. I’ve had students who’ve disappointed me, and some who’ve shocked me with their creativity. I’ve had some that I know I’ve reached, and others that I knew would never get what I was telling them. I’ve taught some lessons that were fun, and others that were absolutely horrendous to participate in. I’ve had some students who have died in service of this country. And I’ve helped memorialize them. I’ve been hailed both publicly and privately as the best thing to ever happen to the students of X,Y and Z. And, I’ve been told I’m useless as well. So it goes, as Uncle Kurt would say…

But at the end of all of this, I’m doing something different now. And there have been times that I have wondered what my dad and Jean would think of it.

What I do now, put real simple is: I raise my kids and try to create a positive environment for my family. When I get free time I write on this blog, and when I get more free time I work on a novel and I work on a children’s picture-story book; in addition, I serve as “Class Mom” to my kids Pre-school, and I clean the house. A work a few shifts a week at a restaurant/bar, as much to get out of the house as for what it brings in. I am now a “stay at home dad” but I don’t stay at home…I make it go. My kids know what “Prehensile” means…And I’m damned proud of it.

I think of this as I look at our latest Presidential election. Barack Obama is our President-Elect. I voted for him. I am glad he was elected.

But I am not a nineteen year-old kid, cheering on Clinton while in college. I supported him mightily and worked on that campaign. I remember screaming out my dorm window when the election returns came in. I thought he was to be it-the start of a new American Idealism.

And while there was good from that administration, I will admit, it did not live up to what I had hoped. The years since have not been politically pleasant for me either. But I’ll gloss that over like a Clarence Clemmons Saxophone solo, to groove back into my actual point…

Barack Obama becomes President at a time where, in my opinion, our nation is at a crossroads both domestically and internationally. The world at large, as I see it has been waiting this one out. They want an American Nation that will engage the rest of the world. People way smarter than I are comparing the crisis of these times to those facing the nation when Lincoln and FDR were elected. That’s pretty heady stuff.

Watching the returns come in, and seeing the crowds gathering in cities all over the world, and their excitement has been inspiring. I can’t recall ever seeing that type of excitement outside of a Philadelphia Phillies World Championship Parade.

Yeah, I had to toss that Phils reference in.

My hope, and I have no reason not to do so, other than a natural East-coast born penchant for expectant failure, is that Obama will be who he says he is. He was born here in Hawaii, not 15 miles from where I write this now. He says a lot about hope and change, and he is seen here very much as a man who has been shaped by the Hawaiian culture. I mean that as a complement.

I believe in hope, and I believe in change, especially after the last eight years of the current administration. I still can’t believe that the nation was ever in a place that they elected that guy twice…but…I digress.

This is not a column about politics. This is a column about Hope. Obama has spoken about it a great deal. So, I ask of him, the President-Elect, the same question that Jean asked me all those years ago, “What will you do?”

You have ascended to the office. You have a majority in Congress. You have called on America to serve and sacrifice. They have listened.

So-What will you do?

I hope it is good. The World will be watching.

As they say here on Oahu, Maika’i pomaika’i, Mr. President-Elect.