Month: June 2013

Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man: Special Father’s Day Edition

Happy Father’s Day to all those out there who signed up for this wild ride known as parenthood. Here are some highlights from my sons’ greetings.

This is a cut out that Hayden (7) made for me. Perhaps he found a picture of me from the eighties wearing my parachute pants. That’s a microphone in my hand–the kid knows I have a big mouth and love being the center of attention.

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In his card to me, he wrote how my favorite thing to do in the world is “play with him,” and my favorite place to eat is McDonald’s (btw, I haven’t eaten fast food in years, but I know someone who loves to go there:).

And here is a picture Owen (8) made for me. I think it is the most frightening rendition I’ve ever seen of myself. I look part chicken, part zombie, and 100% creeper.

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It is part of a school scene he drew, since I am a teacher. The drawing looks like it could be a public service announcement for stranger danger.

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Owen’s card for me featured a series of fill-in statements (his responses are in italics). My favorites include: My dad can do many things! I think he’s best at…laughing, because he sounds like the Joker from Batman when he laughs, and My dad is as handsome as a…monkey, because he has so [many] hair but none on his head.

So, to all of you dads, grand dads, dads-to-be, and anyone who is a father figure, I hope you find some time to reflect on the difference you make in the life of others. I know this monkey enjoyed the time spent with his boys.


Father’s Day: What did I know?

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early 
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, 
then with cracked hands that ached 
from labor in the weekday weather made 
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 
I'd wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. 

When the rooms were warm, he'd call, 
and slowly I would rise and dress, 
fearing the chronic angers of that house, 
Speaking indifferently to him, 
who had driven out the cold 
and polished my good shoes as well. 
What did I know, what did I know 
of love's austere and lonely offices?

My eyes widen as I read each word. This poem–I feel like I wrote it. How could someone else capture my thoughts so perfectly? I feel raw. Exposed. I am sitting in a college classroom on a damp, dreary Fall afternoon, and this poem makes me feel warm, yet I have chills. This is how I feel about my father. This is what I have been trying to articulate in my mind for eighteen years. I think of all the gestures he did to show his love–silently, at times begrudgingly, but he did show his love in the mundane tasks of keeping house. And no one ever thanked him. We may have said the words as we dashed out of the car or grabbed whatever was in his hand, but there was never an exchange of thanks that involved eye contact and a firm hand shake or lingering hug. Affection was quick, obligatory.

And I DID fear the chronic angers of that house. There was always so much anger. It began with my parents and enveloped each person that existed in that small home–nine of us–ten if you include Anger, which certainly felt like another sibling living among us.


I will never forget the day I first came upon this poem. Freshman year at The University of Scranton. A survey literature course. Robert Hayden–my literary brother. It was this poem–Hayden’s words–that provided me with one of mybooks_clip_art_by_zenoracle-d4qi2lb first experiences of what language could convey. I was in awe that a few lines of verse could so profoundly summarize my relationship with my father. I credit this poem for being one of the reasons I became an English teacher. The written word can speak to a reader in many personal, powerful ways. The experience can be incredibly private and eye-opening, yet the reader need not reveal to the world that “this is me! These words are my own! I’ve had the same experience.”

I have gone on to teach that poem in my classroom, and whenever I do, I am reminded that somewhere in the room, there probably is a young man or woman (or ten) who sees themselves in these lines–who hears their own fears being echoed in the voice of the poet: “What did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?” That line has become sort of a mantra of mine as I have aged, as I have reflected on my childhood and my upbringing. What did I know? I knew my dad loved me, yes. He was a good man. He wanted to be a better man than he was, and he did love me. And yet, he was very lonely. Surrounded by his wife and seven children, but alone. And austere. His firm and unbending sense of discipline made him very austere.

My dad died eighteen years ago, when I was in my early twenties. I wish he got to know me better. I wish he was able to meet my lovely wife, and see his beautiful grandsons play. I wish he got to see me as a father. I think he would be different now. I know I am. I am not afraid. I no longer live in fear of the chronic angers that filled my childhood. But in my mind, I recall the blue-black cold of the rooms that hold the memories of my youth.

Flash forward twenty some years. The college freshman reading poetry is now a father himself. He wants to be a good father, but he fights the anger that has lived in him for so long. Indeed, it has subsided, but it still lurks. He loves his sons more than anything. He cannot help it. He knows this is the circle of life. A boy cannot understand his father until he is a father himself…I see now Dad, I do. I see how hard it must have been for you. I see that you were living in a much different time, a time when men were only worth the pay check they brought home–and yours never seemed to be enough. A time when feelings and emotions were never discussed, let alone understood. I see the man who was incredibly bright, but never had the chance to go to college. I know you loved us, but the pressures and chaos of that household were too much to bear. And as part of your legacy, I have inherited some of your struggles–as a husband, a father, a man.

I grapple with this often, almost daily. I know the kind of dad I want to be, the kind I set out to be every day, but then I see my frustration creep in, my impatience, my arrogance. Lately, I’ve been reminded of this innate struggletrainer_fall2012-38 between father and son when dealing with my second born, Hayden (I do not think we arrived at his name accidentally.) Hayden and I fight–a lot. I know it is because we are so similar in personality. My friend Liz, over at The Kovies, told me that “God doesn’t give you the child you want; he gives you the child you need.” I now know that I needed Hayden. I needed him to see myself as a boy–difficult. Caring, loving, and sensitive, yes–but also difficult. I bear witness to my frustration with him. I am trying so hard to be present in his life, to show him my unconditional love. But he challenges my patience, and seems to bring out the worst in me sometimes. And yet, we love each other very much. I snuggle with him in his bed, and he takes walks with me and the dog. He knows I love him, and I am able to show it in ways that my father did not–could not.

In the past month, when I’ve tucked Hayden in at night, I’ve become frustrated by our exchanges. I’d say, “Good night, Hayden. I love you.” And Hayden would say nothing–NOTHING! At first, I tried to ignore it, or I would add a passive aggressive “I love you, too, Dad” before leaving his room. Still, no reply. One night, after no response, I implored,”Hayden, I said I love you.” “I heard you.” “You’re supposed to say ‘I Love you, too, Dad.'” “Sort of,” he says, head buried in his pillow. “Sort of?” I yell. “It means a little,” he explains–to his father, an English teacher. I walk out, incredulous. On another night, I try again. Still, no reply. “Hayden, I know you love me.” He shakes his head “No.” “Yes, you do!” Again, he shakes “No.” “Do you love Owen?” He shakes his head “No.” I feel comforted by this. “Do you love Mommy?” A big head nod “Yes.” So big of a nod, his chin almost hits the floor. I refuse to surrender. “Well, I love you Hayden, no matter what.”

trainer_fall2012_web-38In the past few weeks, we’ve made progress. Now, when I say it, he says “Okay.” That’s all. “Okay.” I leave his room frustrated, but I’m trying to be okay with “Okay.” Still, my mind reels: All I do to show this boy how much I love him every day. Not just the basics. I coach his baseball team (even though I suck). I volunteer in his classroom. I remember to buy his favorite cookies…How can he not know how much he loves me???? Then, it dawns on me. Not right away–it’s a gradual epiphany: Oh, I see. “What did I know of loves austere and lonely offices?” The role of a dad can be cold and austere regardless of the amount of affection we show our kids. It feels cold, because we are often the bad guy–the punisher, the disciplinarian. And lonely. So lonely. We love our children so much, yet watch them push us further and further away toward their eventual independence. What did I know? Not much, until I had children of my own.

Once again, I am comforted by the words of Robert Hayden. Decades later, his poem still beckons and consoles me. I am glad I realized this in time to celebrate Father’s Day. It is a day filled with mixed emotions. How does one celebrate a role that is so layered and confusing? How do I reconcile the past and the present? Well, this year, in honor of Hayden’s refusal to return my “I love you,” I thought of another poem–a song–that reminds me of my father. It is probably the most tender memory I have of my dad. When I was very young, about four, I recall sitting in the front seat with my dad, alone! No seat belt to tether me. Just me sitting next to my dad.  Six brothers and sisters and I had Dad all to myself in his big, thick-cushioned, blue Chevy Nova. I remember driving with the windows down, the breeze mixing with the smoke of his cigarette, and he began to sing me a song:

You’ll never know just how much I miss you
You’ll never know just how much I care

And if I tried, I still couldn’t hide my love for you
You oughta know for haven’t I told you so
A million a more times, you went away
And my heart went with you

I speak your name in my every prayer
If there is some other way to prove that I love you
I swear I don’t know how
You’ll never know if you don’t know now …

On the rare occasion when I was alone with my dad, I would ask him to sing me that song. It only happened a handful of times, before I got too old to feel comfortable requesting it. Well, Dad, I didn’t know then. But I think I do now. And I wish the same for my son. Someday, Hayden. Someday, you’ll know. And I hope I’m around to bear witness.

trainer_fall2012_web-38You’ll Never Know:  music by Harry Warren, lyrics by Mack Gordon

Car Talk

Car_toyI love the conversations that occur in the car with my sons. They can be so profound, enlightening and unpredictable. Here is a transcript of today’s car ride on the way to visit their grandmom, my mom.

Owen (8): This is a weird question, but how old were you when your dad died?

Me: That’s not a weird question at all. It’s a very good question, actually. Let’s see…I was twenty-four. (I am now 43).

Owen: How did he die?

Me: He had a disease called cancer. Some people die when they get cancer, and some people are able to get better. Grandmom had cancer.

Owen: And she beat it.

Me: And Pop had cancer.

Owen: Beat it.

Me: Even Aunt Lori had it.

Owen: And she beat it.

Hayden (6): But not your dad.

Me: No, he didn’t beat it.

There is silence for a minute. We pass a cemetery.

Hayden: Maybe your dad’s buried in there.

Me: No, I know where he’s buried. But I don’t visit cemeteries, I think.

Me: You know, some people believe that when you die, you come back to life again in another form. It’s called reincarnation.

Both boys: Cool/Awesome.

Owen: I want that to happen to me.

Me: You do, huh? Well, some believe that you come back as a being that you need to learn from. Like, if you were mean to a cat all the time, then you might come back to life as a cat.

Owen: I can’t wait til you come back as a cat, Hayden.

Me: No! You have to be REALLY mean, not just annoying. (But I was thinking the same thing, Owen:)

Hayden: Like, you have to throw heavy things at it.

Me: Yeah. And you don’t only come back in a negative way. You can come back as something different from you are now, like a girl, or a person who lives in another country, or a dog.

Hayden: I do NOT want to come back as a girl! (Suddenly) Oh! Oh! I want to come back as a banjo player.

Laughter. Lots of laughter.

Me: A banjo player, huh?

Hayden: Or a baby.

Owen: Maybe your dad has already come back as something.

Me: That would be cool, wouldn’t it? Like maybe he’s one of the birds that visits the bird feeder attached to our window, and he likes to come to the window and look in on us.

Owen: Or maybe he’s a tree. Dad, wouldn’t that be cool if we planted a tree and it was actually your dad?

Me: Whoa!

Hayden: But no grave stone! It wouldn’t be cool to have grave stone underneath the tree in our yard.

Owen: Yeah, if people have a grave stone in their yard, everyone will think they are weird.

We drive some more in silence.

Hayden: What if he came back as a building?

Owen: No, he can’t be a building.

Me: Buildings aren’t alive.

We pass a Dunkin Donuts where a man is pulling out of the lot smoking a cigarette.

Hayden: See that man smoking? That man’s coming back as a cigarette.

Owen: Yeah, so he can feel what it’s like to be set on fire.

Hayden: Yeah!

Me: Okay. We’re almost there, boys.

My Garden of Weedin’

photo (22)Lately, I have found myself telling  people that my gardens finally look the way I’ve wanted them to. If it sounds like I’m boasting, it’s because I am. And it’s only taken me ten years to get them just so!

We bought our house ten years ago from a widow who had maintained her property, but her landscaping was lacking. Bordering the house was a row of yew trees and the backyard had a field of ivy by the fence. I was young and foolish and, like any new homeowner in this era, dutifully watched my share of HGTV shows like Weekend Warriors, Curb Appeal, and Yard Crashers. Armed with such gusto, I went about creating garden, after garden, after garden. I hacked away at dozens of yews. I even stood on a ladder wielding a chainsaw to destroy those bastards. It did not take me long to realize that I HATE yews–I really do. Next, I ripped up a perfectly happy bed of ivy to plant hostas and liatrope. I pulverized forty year old tree roots to establish gardens on both sides of my patio. I hacked and I hoed in the side yard, the front yard, around the house, beside the house, around the mailbox… In all, I created 10–count ’em, T-E-N gardens where there were none. Suffice to say, I was out of my f***ing mind.

Around this time of my maniacal meanderings in the yard, I remember visiting my in-laws home in the New Jersey suburbs. Their house was very pretty, but I remember feeling sorry for them because most of their yard wasphoto (24)-001 grass, and the few garden spots they had were wasted spaces of ground cover. I thought to myself, “What a shame. These gardens have such possibility.” I look back on that moment and laugh–hard. They did not have such gardens because they were smart. They enjoyed something known as the weekend, rather than spend countless hours mulching and digging. They were older, and wiser. And now, so am I. Don’t get me wrong, I love my gardens, but now I see the wisdom in the adage “Less is more.” Such a thought is counter-culture here in America, but God I wish I knew the beauty in that phrase ten years ago.

photo (23)-001Yet, just as my shrubs and perennials have grown, so have I. I find a lot of meaning in working in the garden, and it can be a great place to till the soil of one’s thoughts. Some of life’s most profound lessons can be made in one’s attempts to garden.

First off, a garden teaches one patience. I remember planting tulip bulbs one fall, annoyed that I had to wait a whole six months to enjoy them. Yet, with each passing year, my impatiens (pardon the pun) has subsided. I have planted seeds and saplings that are now flourishing shrubs and towering trees. Today, rather than feel petulant when burying  bulbs and young plants, I am comforted by the fact that all things need time to grow, just like people. Rather than be annoyed at the time I must spend waiting, I enjoy other features in the meantime. There is always something to captivate one’s eye in the garden.

Gardens are also a great cure for perfectionism. We live in a world of Martha Stewart Madness, but if you compare yourself to these Marthas, you’ll never be happy. I can recall when I finallyphoto (25)-001 realized that my gardening was more of an obsession than a hobby. I was miserable, and I was constantly complaining to my wife. “I can’t do this alone,” I would lament. I was seriously overwhelmed and wanted her to help. I joked with her how all I was trying to do was “create a showplace” for her–I know, I’m cringing at my word choice there, too. She looked at me and said, “You’re not doing this for me.” Then, it dawned on me–I wasn’t. I had to find out why I was doing this–and so much of it. For one, we live on 3/4 of an acre. It’s a lot of property (too much really) but it allows us a buffer from a busier thoroughfare. We are the corner house on a well-traveled street. Secretly, I wanted to be the envy of others. I imagined people slowing down as they passed my house and asking themselves, “Who lives there, Martha Stewart’s younger, cuter brother?”

I was also doing it as a way to celebrate having more than I did as a child. We lived in a twin house, and seven kids did some serious damage to the plants and shrubs my father attempted to maintain–we laid in the arborvitae bushes that he took such pride in as if they were nature’s hammocks, we yanked leaves off of trees just because we wanted something to do with our hands. In short, we had no respect for what he was trying to accomplish. There was not enough space for gardens and playing areas. Eventually , he gave up. And my mother! She had a brown thumb when it came to the outdoors. Every azalea or hydrangea that she received for Mother’s Day would be dead by Memorial Day. I swear, the woman thought that watering was optional. In later years, after everyone had moved out, she remarked to me how her black-eyed Susans were thriving in the front garden. I pointed out to her that those flowers were right under her window air conditioning unit which steadily dripped water into her garden. “Oh, you think that’s why?” “Yes, mom. Watering helps things live.” “Hmph,” she replied.

photo (20)And so my gardens were well watered, and I marvelled as things grew and came back year after year. “I did this,” I’d think, “and it looks pretty amazing.” But the moments of joy were fleeting. Things would bloom and whither so quickly. Some plants would bully others out of existence. Others needed more sun, some more shade. Plant. Replant. Dig up. Replace. And then there was the issue of the weeds–those damn weeds.  I would no sooner weed a bed, then the earth would sprout more. I referred to countless articles–which were oh-so-helpful: Pull the weed at the root…Really? Thank you, Captain Obvious. Yes, weeding is indeed an exercise in futility. There is no way to see how far down the root is, and try as I may, a tip of root always remains underground. But again, life lessons can be gleaned from this: the trick to pulling a weed is to be very gentle. Ripping out weeds is the most ineffective way to attempt to get rid of them. A gentle tug is all you need. There is something very Zen about pulling a weed properly. The release from the ground is euphoric.

I have grown accustomed to weeds. I know now that try as I may, there will always be weeds, and just as one of my gardens may look weed free, there is another beckoning for some maintenance. Who cares? Not me– anymore. Like debt, or those extra few pounds, weeds are simply part of the experience-a fact of life. To rid your world of them is nothing more than hubris–our arrogance as human beings.

Once, I was involved with a  community flower garden at our high school. This garden barely looked alive. But what was surviving were the weeds.  While we were attempting to beautify the space, a friend of mine, an art teacher, remarked, “You know, a weed is just a flower without a press agent.” Her words were so profound, and they’ve served me well in the garden for years since. Whose to say this purple spiky thing can be called a “flower” but this purple spiky thing cannot.  Now, when I look at “weeds” I try to see the beauty in the “ugly”.  Also, when I admire a garden, I try not to search for weeds or other flaws, but to see past them at the aspects that are pastoral and pleasing. I bring this attitude into more of my daily life. Look for the beauty and it will surface.

photo (21)I am a much happier gardener these days. I’m not out there toiling every day, and even when I am, it is not for hours on end. I set more realistic goals–weed for fifteen minutes a night, water while the kids are running through the hose. I even shut down a few gardens because I had too little time. Ahh, the power of grass seed. I’ve also had the opportunity to watch a number of young couples, newly married homeowners, move in to our neighborhood and begin to hack away at their American Dream. I see myself in their attempts at doing it all. I smile knowingly, and I nod in agreement–yes, I recognize you.

Gardening has taught me so much: what is beauty, how to enjoy it, what I want in a hobby, and that if I am not feeling happy doing it, then don’t. My jobs in the garden will never be finished. There are weeds sprouting up as I write this. Some I will pull, many I will miss, and none of it matters in the end. Such are life’s reminders one can find while working in the garden–if only you’re willing to dig deep enough.