hazy shades of winter

The year I turned 40 Todd and I celebrated our eighteenth anniversary. We have two children, ages 5 and 9.  The year my parents turned 40 they celebrated their twentieth wedding anniversary.  They had three children, ages 18, 13, and 9.

On the surface it may seem like we shared a similar path, my parents and I. But I was 38 the year my then-7 year old son arrived and not-quite-40 the the day we met our 5 year old. Contrast that with my parents who welcomed their first child before they could legally drink. At an age when I was staying out at bars until 2 am, my Mom and Dad were raising a hormonal teenager, a defiant seven year old, and a free-spirited toddler.

I don’t know how they did it.

Growing up, we struggled.  With Reaganomics failing to trickle down and steel mills closing up all across the rust belt, my Dad was often out-of-work.  My Mom found full-time employment as a clerk at a local department store, a position she held for years even after my Dad had achieved long-term job security.  Throughout the years we lived in a series of rented homes.  We were frequent visitors at the food bank.  We bought groceries with food stamps. There was no extra spending money, no family vacations.  Even McDonald’s seemed a luxury.

Of course at the time we never knew this because at the time my parents made sure we always had the things we needed.  We may have bought our clothes from the sale rack at the discount store and eaten an unusual amount of Hamburger Helper, but for the most part it seemed we did not want for anything.  Looking back I don’t remember the struggles.  I remember the Christmas Santa Claus came to visit us at the farmhouse.  I remember the make-shift living room floor picnics at the house on Market Street.  I remember the elaborate birthday parties on Buffalo Street.  I remember the unconditional love.

I don’t know how they did it.

My parents at age 40 had a dramatically different life than I have at age 40.  I hold a mortgage with the promise of home ownership.  I take annual trips to Puerto Rico.  I buy clothes on sale out of choice, not necessity.  The struggles and sacrifices of my parents gave me this life; I would not have it otherwise.

So I hope my struggles and sacrifices, however trivial in comparison to those of my parents, serve as teaching moments and provide for Chris and Elijah the tools to achieve their dreams.  I want to create memorable birthdays and Christmases and living room picnics and offer to my sons the unconditional love my parents so freely gave to me.

A 40 like my 40, but better.

eye of the tiger

My son had a bad day yesterday.  It all began when he left his backpack in the car.  He does this a lot, leaving things behind.  His backpack, his lunchbox, his gloves.  Last summer he came home from day camp in just his bathing suit, having lost his clothes, shoes and spare eyeglasses while at the pool.  It’s to the point that whenever I walk down the dirty stretch of alley between my office and the coffee shop and I see a single shoe or a stray pair of pants I think, “Chris must have been here.”

Not long after dropping my other son off at pre-K, I received a voicemail from Chris.  I assumed he was calling to ask me to bring his backpack to the school, but it turns out he was calling to tell me that his glasses had been broken by a classmate.  He was hysterical in a manner that would have won him the Daytime Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress for the next decade, at least.   I called the school and assured Chris that I was not mad, clearly it was an accident.

The day went from bad to worse when we picked up Chris from the bus stop and discovered that not only had his glasses been broken, he had also lost them at some point during the day.  This was followed by an epic three-hour homework showdown where Chris declared that 12 divided by 4 was 27 and a comma went at the end of a sentence,

Some days.

The truth is Chris was not just having a bad day, he’s been having a bad month.  There have been changes to the family dynamic with the addition of our son Elijah, suddenly Chris is not the only child.  For almost two years now he has had all of our attention, now he has to share it.  He also has to share his bedroom, his toys and his dog.  It’s a lot.

Chris loves Elijah and he loves being a big brother.  Having Elijah in the house means Chris gets to do his two favorite things: give orders and tattle.  But still even when you consider the pluses, all of this change is a lot for any kid to process.

Last night before bed Chris was feeling down, the day’s events had finally caught up to him.  He felt stupid for losing his glasses, for not understanding his homework, for having a bad day.

Chris has been through a lot in his nine years. He had a rough start, at one point living in a tent as a baby.  Since then he has lived in six different homes, and not always with the best people.  He’s been neglected and forgotten.  He has seen and experienced things people ten times his age have never seen or experienced, yet still he wakes up every day smiling.

He is the very definition of resilience.

As I told him last night, “You’ve been through so much that wasn’t good, but here you are still standing.  You’re going to have bad days, but you’re going to get through them.  Everything that came before — that was the hard stuff.  Not forgetting your gloves, making sure you have your glasses, remembering to read the directions on your homework — that’s the easy stuff.  You can do the easy stuff.”

I’m willing to cut him some slack — to overlook the lost glasses, the forgotten backpacks, the missing gloves, the refusal to read and follow directions.  He just needs time to adjust.  And I know that he will adjust, because he always does.  He has spent a lifetime doing it — from one foster home to the next. He’s a survivor.

check, please

I hate the word bully. It has become yet another flashy buzzword for these early days of the 21st century — another cause célèbre, another brand to sell, another ribbon to wear.  We attribute every schoolyard skirmish and childish disagreement to the work of a bully. Even harmless name-calling, once a rite of passage for all children, is now considered full-on psychological warfare and verbal intimidation.  When the four year-old who calls a classmate a poopyhead on the playground is labeled a bully, we have gone too far.

I am not unsympathetic.  I was routinely called a faggot from the ages of 8 to 17.  I know firsthand that bullies exist in our schools; the evidence being my story and the stories of the broken children who suffered far more horribly than I at the hands of these would-be oppressors.   Without question we have an obligation to stop these bullies, but we also have an obligation to distinguish between the bully and the children simply learning to navigate the choppy waters of childhood.  When we use bully as some sort of catchall, we effectively neuter our children and foster a culture of victimhood.

I suppose it comes down to this: which is worse, marijuana or heroin?  Are they equally bad?  Simply stated, if marijuana calls you poopyhead and heroin torments you until you kill yourself, which one would you put your resources into stopping?

If all bullies are the same then the real bullies inevitably slip through the cracks, left to mature, in size if not mind.  I can think of at least a dozen grown-up bullies I have encountered in my adult life.  People with such shockingly low levels of self-esteem they can be made whole only by making others feel less.  For the pint-sized tyrants we have zero tolerance, but for the adults we make excuses: we convince ourselves it would be rude to contradict them; we shakes our heads and cluck that everyone has a right to their opinion; and my favorite, we cite the all-forgiving “free speech”.

Every morning I walk past a restaurant I used to frequent on a regular basis.  One evening while eating there with friends, several people from my group were openly hostile to our waitress.  One woman in particular was especially condescending and dismissive, taking every perceived mistake as a personal attack.  The tension at the table was palpable, many of us were horrified and uncomfortable, but no one more so than our poor server.  Now when I eat there I burn with embarrassment, not because of what my bullying dinner companions did, but because I did nothing to stop them.

Several months ago when picking my son up from school I was part of a conversation with two other parents.  The conversation devolved into a thinly-veiled discussion on race, specifically how unfortunate it was that this otherwise wonderful school was so “urban”.  Polite racism.  One of the parents hypothesized that the school might not have so many discipline problems if it was in another neighborhood, by which she meant white neighborhood.  When I think back on that conversation I burn with embarrassment, again not because of what the other parents said, but because I said nothing to contradict them.

When I was teenager I had an uncle who confronted me about being gay.  At the time I didn’t know what I was other than an overweight awkward teenager who never thought he’d have any kind of sex — gay or straight — but still this man persisted: Don’t you have a girlfriend?  Why don’t you have a girlfriend?  Don’t you like girls?  He kept on for about fifteen minutes.  I suppose he thought he could bully me into heterosexual submission.  In this memory I burn the most with embarrassment, unable to stand up even for myself.

Bullies grow up.  They become racists, homophobes, and generally nasty people who take joy in reducing a waitress to tears.  We may be vigilant about curtailing the abuses of a ten year-old bully, but for grown-up monsters we look the other way.  It might be that in conjunction with policing our playgrounds we should also hold ourselves accountable.  Perhaps we should ask ourselves how often we — the adults — stand up to our bullies?

traditionally non-traditional, or the new normal

Yesterday was Elijah’s first day of school.  There were many forms to sign.  Several forms required the signature of both parents:

_______________________________                 _______________________________
Mother’s Signature                                 Father’s Signature

On each of the forms I crossed out Mother and wrote in Father.  I did this not because I was trying to make a point or engage in an act of passive protest or even because I was offended, I did this because father and father is how we identify.  I did this because this is who we are:  we are not a traditional family.

Like an ever-increasing number of families in this country we do not fit the mold of mom, dad and 2.2 kids.  If anything that traditional mold has been shattered by decades of divorce, familial reshuffling, and social restructuring.  In what may be an actual example of irony, the traditional family is no longer traditional, having been replaced by unimaginable countless configurations: single mom, single dad, two moms, two dads, two moms and two dads, two dads and a mom, two moms and a dad, three dads, grandmother and grandfather, aunt and uncle, stepfather and mother, stepmother and stepfather, mom who used to be dad and mom who is still mom, etc.

Non-traditional is the new normal.

I’ve always believed that the best way to affect change is to just be yourself and lead by example.
Every morning my husband makes breakfast and every evening I make dinner and every night before bed we both kiss the kids goodnight.  We are painfully boring.  A family just like any other family — a family just like your family.  The specifics may be different, but fundamentally we are the same.

Celebrate the non-traditional.  Embrace the new normal.  Change the form.

what am i supposed to do with a porcelain vase?

Eighteen years ago I was working at a small grocery store in my hometown. Todd lived across the street.  I remember the first time I saw him he came in to buy toothpaste and bleach.  It was cold outside and he was wearing a knit cap; he looked adorable and lost and the minute he put that cap on his head I knew I loved him.

Because this was 1997 and Tinder and Grindr had yet to be invented, I asked him out like any other self-respecting homosexual man masquerading as a teenage girl, I slipped a handwritten note into his grocery bag.  Would you like to go out with me?  

The only thing missing were the two boxes for him to indicate yes or no.

For the next two weeks we did what the Duggars refer to as “courting” — an act which consisted of long walks followed by a few awkward side hugs.  It was all very chaste and Puritanical.  I began to think maybe Todd wasn’t gay the night I leaned in to kiss him and he turned his cheek.  Of course he was gay and on February 17 he did not turn his cheek.

Over the years Todd has forgiven so much — he has overlooked my lack of patience, my tendency to overreact, my ability to make everything about me.  In return for looking past this catalog of flaws and shortcomings, I forgive him for taking too long to tell a story and not being Latino.

Eighteen years is long time for any relationship, but in the gay community — where most relationships begin after last call and end twenty minutes later — eighteen years is a lifetime.  I’m not sure how we did it or why we’re still together.  There is no secret to our success.

And besides, it’s not as if we didn’t implode. We did.  On more than one occasion. Some days it was a real struggle. But then I like that we almost failed.  It made us real.  It said we had something to lose in the first place.

Eighteen years later and there is no one I would rather share uncomfortable silences with than him.

sorry i never see you anymore

At our just-for-shits-and-giggles-non-legally binding 2012 big gay wedding we invited our closest friends and select family, 75 people.  This past Saturday when we appeased the suddenly-progressive legislative gods in Harrisburg with our legal wedding, we had two guests — our kids. We used to be very social people.  We used to host parties.  We used to have a lot of friends. The same people I would routinely see four hours a days five days a week I now see maybe once a year.

I sometimes think people are still waiting for us to host the party or organize the dinner, but then I realize that they’re all hosting their own parties and organizing their own dinners. I keep expecting the phone to ring, but it never does because we aren’t invited.  The cynic in me thinks it’s because we no longer have anything to offer, that we fell out of fashion, but the truth is things are different.  And not just for us.  For everyone.  Life went on.  While we were busy having kids, all of those friends we used to see every day have been living their lives, forging new relationships, moving into new homes, starting new jobs, creating new paths that just don’t include us.

Sometimes I feel bad that I no longer see these people.  Some days I mourn the perceived loss of those friendships.  I admonish myself for not being a better friend, for not keeping in contact, for not hosting that party.  I tell myself that all the other parents out there still see their friends every day, still host big parties, still stay out until midnight on a school night eating wings and singing karaoke at the Rivertowne.

Of course even if that were true — and I doubt it is — those parents have had a lifetime with their kids.  They had nine months to prepare and then every day thereafter to enjoy.  Chris turns 9 tomorrow and two years ago we didn’t even know he existed.  Elijah has been in our house for less than two weeks.  I don’t want to miss a minute with them because I’ve already missed so many.  I need to drink up the now before they grow up and resent me.

So I’m sorry I never see you anymore.  I wish I did.  Maybe one day I will.  And to the person a few weeks ago who mentioned that we should have them over to our house: I’ll pencil that in for sometime in late 2023.

to sleep perchance to dream

Due to an unfortunate encounter with some bad Middle Eastern food I did not sleep from 7 am Sunday until 10 pm Monday. When I wasn’t breaking up petty disagreements between my two kids I was running to the bathroom. I spent the better part of Sunday night projectile vomiting spaghetti.  Have you ever vomited spaghetti?  You don’t come back from that.  Ever.

I spent the whole of Monday lying on the couch trying desperately to convince my five-year-old that staying in our pajamas and watching TV all day was the best idea ever. Of course he wasn’t having any of it, preferring to run through the house singing Let It Go at top volume. After our 437th Frozen reenactment, where I portrayed a paralytic consumptive Queen Elsa, I spent nearly an hour on the phone arguing with some incompetent Pittsburgh Public School administrator who had lost my son’s paperwork — the paperwork that we had submitted a week earlier — which is why he was at home on a Monday afternoon and not in school. When I suggested we take a nap, my son laughed at me and then threw all forty pounds of his little body onto my stomach which, at this point now void of food, had begun to digest my internal organs. It was sometime around 2:45 pm that I excused myself to the bathroom…where I cried for seven and a half peaceful minutes.

Yesterday I took my five year old to work with me.  Still no school.  This morning he woke up and threw up “just because”.  Then Chris announced he had a sore throat.  Then one of the dogs peed on the rug. Or maybe it was Todd.  I’m so tired I can’t remember.  It’s been a long couple of days.  Did I mention we got married on Saturday?

Someone asked me how I was doing.  How am I doing?  Twelve days into this and I am exhausted.  I have circles under my eyes. I’ve lost ten pounds.  I just very possibly for the first time in my life might be in over my head.

Don’t misunderstand.  I love it.  Every chaotic moment.  This is the life I have always wanted.  In between the vomiting and the fighting and Todd peeing on the rug, I am surrounded by hugs and kisses and laughter and the promise of a lifetime of watching these two incredible boys grow up.  My beautiful sons.  I would not trade this life for anything.  Having said that, I really need a nap.

the last days of disco

It’s easy to romanticize the past.  I look back on my teenage years and I remember being a carefree and confident idealist, not an awkward and overweight misfit.  My twenties are not a decade of chaos, but a series of adventures and new beginnings.  Looking back on my thirties there are no shades of grey; too recent to be past, the truth of the last decade is black and white.

I said goodbye to 29 while sitting in a bar in Hoboken, New Jersey.  I was horrified to be turning 30, surrounded by mistakes and certain that I had done nothing more than waste the last 29 years of my life.  It didn’t matter that I was the first person in my family to go to college or that I had spent a year traveling through Europe or that I had realized my lifelong dream of living in New York, I was a failure. It was not the best attitude to take into my thirties.

I’m not sure what it was that I was meant to have accomplished by the time I reached 30.  I never had any great career aspirations or the desire to be rich and famous or a need to leave an impression, except suddenly I did.  I suppose I wanted those things I didn’t have simply because I didn’t have them and if I couldn’t, or didn’t, have them then I’d pass the time stewing in a soup of regret in some dimly lit bar.

There is nothing more self-defeating than regret.  Regret is a constant reminder of bad choices.  Regret is failing even when you succeed.  Regret is yesterday and last week, but never right now.  Regret is pointless.  In my thirties I stopped having regret.  In my thirties I finally realized that every choice, every experience, every everything had helped me to get to this very moment, now.  Regret wasn’t my enemy, regret was my friend.

If I could go back to that bar in Hoboken ten years ago I would celebrate.  I would realize that being an awkward teenager had laid the foundation to become a confident adult.  I would understand that every wrong turn was a new beginning.  I would raise a glass to leaving college one credit short of graduation because in that moment I was choosing a path that two months later would lead me to Todd.  I would embrace every obstacle because without those obstacles I would not be who I am.

I could look back at my thirties and remember the bad times, of which there were many.  I could focus on the difficult years in my relationship with Todd.  I could obsess over the years I wasted trying to make someone not crazy.  I could get lost in a maze of ill-conceived friendships.  But those moments and those people led me to now.  Without them the timing would have been wrong.  They gave me my marriage and my house and my job and my friends.  They gave me Chris and Elijah.

These last days of thirty have been the best days of my life.  It’s hard to imagine that me at 29 would appreciate me at 39.  I don’t think my former self would understand the joy of quiet nights at home surrounded by family.  I suspect he would rather be in a bar slamming back his fourth glass of regret, wondering where it all went wrong.  I won’t judge him though.  He made me the person I am today.

no more goodbyes

The hardest part once you have been selected to be an adoptive parent is the transition period.  The time between when you first meet the child and when the child moves into your home.  For weeks — in some cases, months — everything is temporary.  Life is suspended.  Time is reduced to a series of visits.  You steal moments.  You create false realities.  You are your best self, which is to say, not your true self.

While the states of Pennsylvania and West Virginia were busy crossing their respective T’s, we were trying to become a family.  Not the easiest thing to do  when you are basically living under the terms and conditions of a 30-day money back guarantee.  Still for six weeks we shuffled back and forth between Pittsburgh and Wheeling (and on several occasions, points further south of Deliverance).

It was all very clandestine.  Weekend meetings in hotels off the interstate gave way to weekend meetings…at our house off the interstate.  Saturday and Sunday came and went and then Monday, it was back to reality.

It was hard.  No matter how many times we would see each other, no matter how much progress we had made on a previous visit, each time was the first time.  We were like characters in a play, rehearsing until we got it right.   Every Friday was the read through, Saturday the dress rehearsal, and then just as the curtain was coming up on the Sunday matinee it was time to say goodbye.

The goodbyes were the worst.  You can’t explain goodbyes to a five year-old.  Or an eight year-old.  Not when you the adult don’t understand them yourself.

So we would say goodbye and Elijah didn’t mind.  At first.  But then he did.  Then he wanted to stay except he couldn’t because that would have been kidnapping.  He may have been ours, but not really.  So…goodbye.  And Chris would cry.  Every time.  Because he has a lot of feelings.  Goodbye.  And Todd would get very quiet.  Goodbye.  I don’t want to go.  And my heart would break in two.

Until today.  Today there are no more goodbyes.  Nothing is temporary or suspended or stolen.  Today the T’s have been crossed; the play has been rehearsed.  Today Elijah is ours and we are his. Today.  Now.  Forever.

don’t worry, be happy-ish

I worry that I’m not a good parent.  I worry that I’m too selfish to be a good parent.  I worry that I’ve made too many mistakes to be a good parent.

I worry that I try too hard.  I worry that I don’t try hard enough.  I worry that I let my son play too much Minecraft and then I worry that I nap too much when he plays too much Minecraft.  I worry when my son gets a “D” on his math test and then I worry when I can’t figure out why he got a “D” on his math test.  I worry that there are not enough hugs, not enough I love yous.  I worry that there is enough criticism, enough nagging.

I worry that I won’t be enough.  I worry that I’ll be too much.

I worry I’ll never be as good a father as my husband.  I’m jealous of his patience and his kindness and his ability to remain calm always.  I worry my kids will prefer him to me; or worse, they will prefer me to him.  I worry I don’t love him as much as he loves me.  I worry he will get a better offer.

I worry that I’m turning 40 in six days.  I worry what that means.  I worry that I won’t have the energy to keep up with a five year-old and a nine year-old.  I worry that my kids will think I’m old.  I worry that I am old.

I worry that I worry too much and I worry that all this worrying means I’m missing out on moments I can never get back.  I worry that I won’t know what to do when I stop all the worry.  I worry that I’m not evolved, just neurotic.  So very, very neurotic. 😃