Month: August 2012

These Shoes Hurt My Feet

“Atticus was right. One time he said you never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.”    — Scout Finch, To Kill A Mockingbird

These words, that Scout recalls on the front porch of Boo Radley’s house, embody a theme that has gotten me to this point in my life: understanding another’s point of view.

I never realized how much I resented my father until I had a son.  At the age of thirty-five, my wife and I were blessed with a little, breathing miracle.  Along with all of the tenderness and frustration that accompanies a newborn, I found myself becoming resentful of my own childhood.  I am a part of a generation where more and more men and women view parenting as a mutually shared experience.  Yet, as I held my boy, as I rocked him to sleep, as I changed his diaper, or fed him at 3 a.m., there was a thought forever scratching in the back of my mind:  Did my dad do this?  Did he hold me? Did he sing to me?  Did he dream with me and for me?  The answer devolved over time from sure to probably, to maybe, to no. Even now, 7 years later, as I am on my thousandth super hero bedtime story, I cannot recall my dad ever putting me to bed, or lying with me and reading a book, or telling me a story before sending me off to sleep.

When I became a father, I felt myself stepping in to the shoes of my own father, who had been dead a decade already. As I tried to adjust to my new role, I couldn’t believe how bad I was at it, how little patience I had.   And with every negative parenting experience I had, a little voice inside my head would say, “You are just like him. So quick to anger. So easily annoyed. You’re going to screw this up, too.” Such thoughts would only fuel my anger more! I needed to get a hold of this anger. Thankfully, through much therapy and patience (from my wife and myself), I find I am in a much better place seven and a half years into this parenting thing. Make no mistake, I make lots of mistakes! But I am more aware, more present in my understanding of my triggers and my fears.

I bring this sense of awareness with me everyday.  I do it by employing this very technique that is discussed at length in TKAM: I try to step into another person’s shoes. I often think of Atticus when I have to explain something difficult to my boys, like how there is evil in the world, or how life is unfair, or how someone feels when you make fun of them…However, I have also been able to use this approach with others in my life, be it my new mail man who seems to hate his job and can’t even muster up a wave, or my wife who is grappling with all of the pressures of working full-time in corporate America. I have even been able to employ this method with my own father. I do not hate him, I never did. I just could never understand him and why he did the things he did. But now, as I continue to grow as a person, and a father, I try to “climb in to his skin” by thinking, “What was my dad’s childhood like? Who was there for him? Who hurt him so badly that he closed himself off from the world?” By seeing things the way he perhaps did, I have broadened my perspective. In a way, as I keep chasing Atticus Finch, I must continually reconcile with my conflicted feelings for my own dad.  As much as I’d like to swing on the front porch of the Finch residence, emotionally, I identify more with the Radley’s across the street.

I continue to try on many pairs of shoes; and I highly recommend it. Yet, just as I would never continue to wear a pair that constantly hurt my feet, I refuse to be beholden to a pair that tried to be passed on to me from my own father. Those shoes hurt my feet way too much.

Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man: Number 2

Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man #2

My son, Hayden (age 5 at the time), drew this picture in kindergarten last year. Along with it, he wrote: “In the spring, I go to the park. The park is fun. I go with dad and Owen.” My first reaction when I saw this was, “Yes! My sons are writing about the happy childhood I am trying to give them:)” However, then my neuroses kicks in, and I think: “Where the hell is my face? I take him to the park, and he doesn’t even have the courtesy to fit my whole head in the picture. And why do the kids look like killer zombies? Is this a window into his psyche? Wait. What the…Oh my God, I’m not wearing pants!!”

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Hey, dad! Do you remember?

Just returned from a week “down the shore.” It is so cool making happy memories with my wife and our boys. We have silly traditions, like rolling down the windows and shouting “LBI” (Long Beach Island) when we drive over the bridge to the island;  getting ice cream on the beach on Sundays only–even though they still manage to have it everyday anyway; going to Fantasy Island Amusement Park for the Friday Special; trying to win ANOTHER stuffed animal from the grabbity-grab game at the arcade. These memories are inspired and wonderful–traditions I hope to continue for many years.

Yet, there are tiny moments that also melt my heart. Today, at the water slide, Owen (7) excitedly asked the man at the counter for a double tube, because “I’m going to ride down with my dad!” And yesterday, at the Amusement Park, I won both boys stuffed animals at the water gun balloon pop game. Now, I am not deft at many things, but don’t mess with me and the water gun balloon pop game. (Meanwhile, I felt guilty standing next to a bunch of four-year olds and thinking “Don’t waste your time. I’m about to kick your butt!”) But to hear my guys come home and tell their grandparents: “Daddy won us these on the water balloon thing. HE is the best at that!” So good he beat six other competitors whose ages added together still don’t equal his. But I don’t care. They think I’m the best. How cool.

The quote of the week, though, goes to Hayden, my 6 year-old.  During one of our many hours in the ocean, the boys and I got throttled by a wave. As we all resurfaced, Hayden says, “Hey, dad! Do you remember FIVE SECONDS AGO TODAY, when that wave came crashing down on us?”  Lets see…Five seconds ago…oh yeah, I remember! “Yeah, buddy, I remember.”  And I hope to always remember.  “Pretty awesome, huh, dad?” “Yeah, Hayd, pretty awesome.” You have no idea how awesome.

Memories like this, I hope I’ll never forget!

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Anger MISmanagement

I spent the first three decades of my life angry. Of course I was unaware of this anger day to day, but there it sat, in my soul, percolating. There was a big disconnect for me between fighting and being angry. As one of seven children, I was constantly fighting: for the front seat of the car, for the TV show I wanted to watch, for the prize buried at the bottom of the cereal box, for the bathroom, for attention. However, I never considered myself an angry person. In fact, in my family I was known as the peacemaker–the one who tried to get people to make up. I even had a mantra that I would use when talking to others: “I’m a Libra; I’m a peacemaker.” And I was (I still am a Libra). I was a peacemaker AND a fighter–a damn good fighter. In my house, the art of argument all depended on the noise. The loudest person won. It didn’t matter what the fight was about, just that you were prepared to amp it up with yelling, and shortly thereafter with slapping and hairpulling. But if you could scream the loudest, you were technically the winner.

“You were the one who taught me how to fight.” These words, spoken by a friend of mine over some beers, came as an epiphany to me. Here was a successful lawyer who worked as an assistant district attorney for many years, attributing her skills as a verbal pugilist to little old me. At first, I took the statement as a compliment–and indeed I think it was meant as such. But as I churned the words over in my head, they made me sad. Did I really fight that dirty and vocally that someone who prosecutes robbers, rapists and murderers attributes her skills to my scrappy screaming? I knew she was implying that her skills were honed while with me because I would never let an argument go until I thought of myself as “the winner”, or at least that I was being heard (finally). Yet, this accolade was a dubious distinction. I was known as a fighter.

My late teens and twenties were spent in an alcohol-induced haze. I was a terrible drunk and I practiced being one more than I care to admit. And, with alcohol comes argument. When I was drunk, I was beligerent and nasty, spewing forth my vitriole to friend and foe alike. Little did I know I was numbing the pain of spending all those years fighting, sober or not. I wanted to escape all the memories I was hiding from, yet sadly, the alcohol just confounded the situation. I was part of the viscious cycle of awareness/repression/denial. I often tell people, “I’m not an alcoholic, but it’s not from lack of trying.” I am lucky to have dodged that bullet.

In my late twenties, I met an amazing woman who was as normal as I was not; whose family was a functional as mine was dysfunctional. She was the yin to my yang. We were attracted to one another because we were such polar (or should I say bi-polar) opposites. During our courtship, I was on my best behavior. We only saw each other on weekends, so our time spent together was rather idyllic. After a year, almost to the day, I proposed and she accepted. But the cracks had already begun to show in my facade. We were in the Virgin Islands. It was the night before I was going to ask her to marry me, and I became angry over something ridiculous–we got lost trying to find our way to a restaraunt. I had been drinking before we left, so Pam drove. After awhile, we gave up and just came home. I was sulking over the spolied night out; she simply wanted to make the best of it. I spent the rest of the night being sullen. I remember sitting in our beautiful house overlooking the water, and thinking in my boozy state, “You are an asshole, ruining a perfectly good evening. What’s the big frigging deal?”

In hindsight, I know what the big  frigging deal was. In less than twenty-four hours, I would be asking this woman to be my wife. And I knew, deep down inside, that I had so much unresolved shit to deal with, shit that would eventually spew forth. I knew in that moment of clarity, that I was walking into a landmine. How could I marry this woman, this kind, gentle, peaceful woman, when I was filled with such deep-seated anger? I felt bad for her, for inheriting all of my baggage. That night I was trying to push her away subconsciously–my last ditch effort to spare her a lifetime of my bullshit. I am so glad (and lucky) that she had yet to see the cracks…

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Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man #1

Portrait of an Artist as a weird man 1

This is a drawing from my son, Owen (7 years). I think I look like the creepy man in the park you warn your children about. Owen is really bothered by the fact that I’m bald and has already told me he doesn’t think I’m good looking. Having kids is a real ego booster:)

Who are your heroes?

In the comments from my last post, Atticus Finch is my hero, one reader, Brian, was prompted to ask who was HIS Atticus and was it a literary figure or someone real. Such a great question, and it got me to thinking about the word hero and what it truly means. Clearly, I think Atticus is my role model. But I realize now that I have other heroes. Here are a few people who inspire me to challenge myself to be the best that I can be.

1.  Dr. Dan Gottlieb

Dan Gottlieb is a psychiatrist from the Philadelphia area. I first discovered him years ago as a teen when I would read his weekly column about mental health in The Philadelphia Inquirer. He was one of the first people I encountered that made me begin to think of this thing called MENTAL HEALTH. Decades later, I continue to be inspired by him through his lectures, books about his grandson Sam, and his “Voices in the Family” radio show on NPR. One of the things I love best about him is that he has been confined to a wheelchair for 33 years, yet he refuses to be a victim. An amazing person, Gottlieb has helped thousands of people feel better about who they are and where they’ve been.

2. Kwesi Koomson

A teacher at Westtown Friends School in West Chester, PA, Kwesi Koomson is originally from Ghana. Kwesi is responsible for educating hundreds of students in his homeland. Wanting to give back for all the good fortune he had, Kwesi began a program that would help those students in his village pass the high school entrance exam, which was historically under 50%. In 2004, he returned to his home village with the intent of starting a small school. What started as 32 students in a church has ballooned into a complete K-12 program known as the Heritage Academy.  In 2012, the Heritage Academy enrollment stands at over 1,100–and their high school exam pass rate: 100%.

3. Jeanette Walls  

Jeanette Walls wrote an amazing memoir: The Glass Castle. Her story is so raw and compelling, it definitely brings to mind the adage: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” What I love most about her story is the courage it took her to reveal all the sordid details of her family’s past, at the risk of losing her status in society. What she discovered along the way was that writing the truth unleashed all of the anger, guilt, and shame she had been harboring her whole adult life. A true heroine.

Now it’s your turn. Who is one of your heroes? Please post someone, even if you can’t fully explain why! We need to be reminded of our heroes more.

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Atticus Finch is my hero

Atticus Finch is my hero. To Kill A Mockingbird is my all-time favorite book. Like many before and after me, it was one of the rites of passage of high school English. And like some, it was because of that book that I knew I wanted to be an English teacher. The casting of the Academy-award winning film is probably the best book-to-screen adaptation that I have ever seen. Gregory Peck IS Atticus Finch. He (Finch/Peck) is the consummate father, citizen, and lawyer the literary and film world has ever known.

Throughout my life, Atticus Finch has been a touchstone. I reread TKAM while on a train travelling through Europe in college and my esteem for the book was affirmed. I watched the film multiple times with family, friends, and then students, and I continued to be engrossed every time. My wife and I had our first date at a showing of the film in Philadelphia, where Gregory Peck spoke afterwards, and the man who played Tom Robinson (Brock Peters) surprised Peck and the audience onstage. I marveled at the ease of their friendship. I felt privileged to hear them share stories about their mutual friend, the elusive Ms. Lee. That film talk will always be one of my fondest memories (and the fact that that first date became a lifetime certainly rivals it).

My admiration for Atticus Finch continued in the early years of our marriage, when I lobbied hard for any future sons to be named Atticus. My wife gave a resounding “NO!” How about the middle name? My wife: “NO!” How about the dog’s first name? “NO!” I had to settle for it being our yellow lab’s middle name: Rufus Atticus. It certainly gives him an air of distinction. And now, with two sons of my own, I am reminded of Atticus Finch almost daily. He was such a tremendous father, his temperament so even, his tone assured, his knowledge vast, his integrity unwavering. I can never be him. I’d be a fool to even try to match his character. But a man can aspire, and aspire I do. Yet, there are many times I am reminded of just how unlike Atticus I really am: when I lose my temper, when I shout at my boys, when I say something passive aggressive, or huff and puff my way through a chore…

Beyond my own shortcomings, Atticus Finch serves as a lifetime reminder for me as to just how lacking my own father was. My dad tried to be a good man, but he was so broken–so closed off emotionally, so angry. The fact that he had seven children and spent most of his time holed up in his bedroom seemed to emphasize just how shut down he was–my own Boo Radley.  So, when I got married, I knew I wanted to have a small family, and I knew I wanted to raise them in a way that I was not raised; in a style that emphasized open love and dialogue. In a way that my children would know why I was doing certain things, or reacting in a certain way. I want a house where love and honor and respect triumph. And as I grapple with this fantasy, and attempt to make it, in-part, a reality, I often think of my hero:  my surrogate, literary father, Atticus. I begin this blog in the hopes of reconciling all of the thoughts and ideas that I hold from my experiences in a large, Irish Catholic dysfunctional family, and how those experiences are resurfacing and wreaking havoc, or being laid to rest, as I create my own (hopefully, much more functional) family.

I can never be Atticus Finch–I don’t think anyone can. But maybe I can channel his presence through my persona, my alter ego: Dadicus Grinch. I want to be the kind of man he was, yet I find I am a bundle of contradictons: a friendly curmudgeon, an open-minded critic, a pessimistic optimist, an angry peacemaker… I have the best intentions, but I will always have my demons. Here’s a chance to put some of them to rest.

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