Laughter

“I’m pregnant and I know it!”

The movie Pitch Perfect, which spawned the “Cups” phenomenon, is hysterical. Yet, I don’t think it’s something that my kids should watch.MV5BMTcyMTMzNzE5N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzg5NjM5Nw@@._V1_ But they did, at a family party this summer with their cousins. No big deal. They watched it again with the babysitter a few weeks ago. She asked if they were allowed, and they said sure, they had already seen it. Since then, they are obsessed with it. They love Fat Amy, and they come home from school and put on song clips from YouTube. As far as I’m concerned, what’s done is done.  Now, the three of us can be found in various states of a cappella singing parts of the “Since You’ve Been Gone” audition scene. Hayden loves to mimic Amy fixing her boobs before she belts out her line. I can’t help but laugh.

It’s a weird world to navigate. The whole concept of sex, and curse words, and innuendo. Truthfully, I’m more offended by some of the exploitation on The Disney Channel than the stuff found in movies like Pitch Perfect. But it’s made for some interesting conversation. Like: “Guys, you can’t pretend to have boobs and adjust them”; or “No, you can’t watch the scene where they sing songs about sex”; or “Now, just cause they say these words in a movie, doesn’t mean you’re allowed to say them.” The funny thing is, I’m an English teacher. I love words. I do not want to back down from a conversation about words. And I don’t.

Yesterday, we were watching a clip from the movie, and Amy says the word “bitch”. I say, “You know we can’t say that word, right?” Owen says, “pitch”?  “No, the B word.” “What’s the B word?” asks Hayden. “It rhymes with pitch,” I say. “Bitch!” Owen says excitedly. “Yeah, but spell it, don’t say it,” I instruct. “B-I-T-C-H,” he replies. “You don’t have to spell it (correctly, I might add) now,” I say. They giggle.

As a child, I was terrified of being heard saying a curse word. I would not ask my parents what a word meant, and thought every bad word I uttered was one step closer to H-E-double hockey sticks. But it’s cool being on this side of things. Knowing that I am the gatekeeper for knowledge when it comes to curse words, and sex, and life. I am not foolish enough to think that they won’t find some (hopefully not most) of their education in the schoolyard, on the bus, or the internet, but I do plan on being a voice in the fray. Now, I marvel at their naiveté. I smile at their innocence. And I cringe a little at how to approach their inquiries.

Take today. We are in the woods walking the dogs, and Hayden starts quoting lines from Pitch Perfect. “Dad, I love the part when Fat Amy says [pause]. Now, I’m going to say ‘beach’ even though it’s the other B word, okay?” “Okay,” I say. He delivers the line. Owen pipes in, “What does the B word even mean?” “It’s so stupid,” I say. “It means ‘a female dog‘.” We all look at our little black Lab, Rosie, and laugh. “Language is strange, guys. The world decides that certain words are wrong or bad, and it’s important to know that if you say them, you will get in trouble, or people will look down on you. If you called someone a female dog, they would look at you and think you were weird. But if you call someone a bitch you’d get punished. Most curses are words that we have other words for. Ask me some?” They oblige.

“The s-h- word means poop, right?” Owen asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “You can say poop and no one cares, but if you say S-H-I-T you’re in trouble.”

“But crap means poop, too.” Hayden says, trying to reassure himself.

“Yep. And we don’t say that.” I love that they think crap is a curse word. The other day, my friend dropped his son off to play with the boys. As he was leaving, Hayden came out to the driveway and said, “Mr. Bill, Thomas just said the C word.” We both looked at each other wide-eyed. “What’s the C word, Hayden?” he asked. “C-R-A-P,” he spells. Relieved, I say, “Tell him not to say it–you don’t need to run and tell us.” Phew–I was not ready for that conversation.

The boys are now excited about our discussion. Owen says, “Well, what about F-U-C-K?” I’m sad that he’s heard this word–even if he’s just heard it spelled, which I doubt–but I do have to admit it is very cute when he spells it. Oh, boy, I think. I’m searching for words. “It means sex,” I say. (I decide to save the conversation about Fornication Under Control of the King or For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge for another walk.) “You mean pregnant?” Owen asks. “Yeah,” I say slowly, contemplating how far I want to go, and also unsure how he connected the two. “So, Mommy was sexed?” Hayden asks. “Um-hmm,” I say, stifling my laughter. “Mommy was sexed!” Owen says. They crack up laughing. I try to keep the educational tenor of the conversation. “And I don’t really like that so many songs mention sex, and you guys go around singing the word sexy. Like from that song, ‘I’m Sexy and I Know It’.” They are jumping with excitement. This topic has made them more playful than our puppies a few yards ahead. Hayden revs up to do one of his dance moves. He leaps in the air, lands with arms outstretched, then he belts out, in tune, “I’m pregnant and I know it.”

That’s enough sex talk for one day.

Advertisements

And you thought YOU were busy! Check out my seven-year-old’s TO DO List.

Hayden brought these Post-its home from school the other day. I asked if the teacher assigned them the job of making a list. He said, “No, a few of us just wanted to make them.” I love how he put the heading at the top of each page–with an exclamation point! Please read til the end–he saved the best for last:)

photo (37) 1. Go on bus.

2. Go in school.

3. Learn (how to spell).

4. “Special” is the term for a rotating class-Art, Gym, Music…

5. Go home.

photo (38) 6. Have a snack.

7. Play LEGOs.

8. Have fun at LEGOs.

9. Eat dinner.

photo (39) 10. Watch TV.

11. Go upstairs.

12. Brush teeth.

13. Floss good.

14. Pink–Pink is what we call their flouride rinse. So glad that I put the fear of the dentist in them–can you tell?

photo (40) 15. Go pee.

16. Go in my bed.

17. Jump and do armpit farts! The boy is lucky he hasn’t cracked any ribs he’s been doing so many damn armpit farts.

Caution: Lifeguard on Duty Will Break Your Heart.

It is the summer of 1977. Our nation has finally recovered from all of the hullabaloo surrounding The Bicentennial. Disco Fever will soon take to the dance floor as everyone tries to imitate John Travolta‘s finger pointing. And WiFi 92 FM still can’t get enough of Paul McCartney and The Wings singing about “Silly Love Songs“: You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs…But I look around me and I see it isn’t so…

 I find this song rather fitting because, you see, I am in love. Yes, I am eight years old, and I have fallen in love. Her name is Lynn. She is sweet, pretty and kind. Her brown, shoulder-length curls are sun-kissed with streaks of blonde; her long limbs are the color of caramel; her smile, electric. Lynn is probably around twenty, but age does not matter. I love her, and that’s all there is to it.

swim-19918_640I met Lynn at our swim club, Sunny Willow. She is a lifeguard there. I watch her sit atop the chair, ready to risk her life to save another’s. Occasionally, I get up the nerve to smile at her when I walk by her as she switches from guarding the shallow end to the deep end. I may even say “Hi” to her when I am coming back from the snack bar with two fistfuls of Swedish Fish–a penny each, and I buy a dollars worth. Her smile back gives me hope–she looks like the kind of woman who would wait–if the right man boy comes along.

********************

“Michael, you have to take swim lessons this summer.” My mother announces this as we are driving to the pool in our purple station wagon.

“No way! I can swim.”

“Well, you need to get better.  I’m signing you up,” she insists.

I feel a nervous pang in the pit of my stomach. I still associate swim lessons with my horrible incident at the local high school–the one where I went to the bathroom in the pool. (Read about that here). I’ve all but put it out of my memory. I try to relax. After all, I am older and wiser–and in love. Then, I have an epiphany: maybe I will have Lynn as my instructor!

“Okay, sign me up!”

***************************

The list is posted on the bulletin board by the showers. The gods look upon me favorably–Poseidon…Neptune…they’ve felt the pangs of love that I now feel. They know what it’s like to be under a siren’s spell. I see my name on the list, and above it my instructor’s: L-Y-N-N.

For two weeks, I float on air. I jump from my trundle bed and eat my Alpha-Bits with my bathing suit on, anxiously awaiting to be driven to the pool. I spend every weekday morning with Lynn. For forty-five minutes she and I (okay, and about 6 other kids) swim together in the cool morning breeze.

Some people wanna fill the world with silly love songs.
And what’s wrong with that?
I’d like to know, ’cause here I go again

I hum the tune and repeat the lyrics in my mind, as I wait at the water’s edge for Lynn to take my arms and bring me out to examine my technique. I lay on my back in the water and feel Lynn’s hands supporting my head. “Kick,” she commands. And I obey. I kick with all my might. I look up at the blue sky, and feel as if I am already in heaven. I wish this moment could last forever. “Good job,” she says, releasing my head, and I swim back to the others, beaming with pride.

I love you, I love you,
I love you, I love you…and I do. I’m not sure what it all means, but I feel the fire in my stomach; I feel my heart beat faster when she is near. And as a result, I want so badly to impress her. To awe her. Maybe it’s foolish to think she can love a scrawny eight year-old, but perhaps she will fall in love with my form. So I swim with all the bravado that my chicken legs can muster, I splash my tiny arms with the might of ten Olympians. Lynn praises me–well, all of us. She smiles, and nods, and says how well we are all doing. And after lessons, I get to hang around the pool all day. I practice the movements as she explained them, and I do so in earnest, hoping she will notice me as she tends to her other life-gaurding duties.

I can’t explain the feeling’s plain to me, say can’t you see?
Ah, she gave me more, she gave it all to me
Now can’t you see,

The weeks go by too quickly, and before I know it, our last lesson has arrived. It is bittersweet. My time with Lynn will be less, but I feel I have greatly improved as a swimmer, and no one can take away this bond we have formed. As I enter the gate for our final class, I run immediately into her: my instructor, my muse.

“Hi, Michael!”

“Hi,” I say, sheepishly.

“I’m glad to see you. I wanted to talk to you about something before our last lesson.”

“Sure,” I say. An award, I think. I’m getting an award!  I have impressed Lynn so much that she wants to reward my efforts. This is the beginning of our future together. We will open a swimming school and spend our summers training kids–underprivileged kids– to be as skilled as we are.

“Why don’t we sit over here?” she asks.

We approach a picnic table and sit across from one another. Her eyes look especially green against the painted tabletop. Her white teeth dazzle me. An award! In my mind, I try to think of the title for my award: Most Improved…no…Fastest Swimmer…no… Most Likely to make the Olympics…I have a dazed smile on my face, but Lynn’s face does not mirror mine. She is not smiling. In fact, she seems to be frowning. I begin to tune in to her words: “I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to repeat the lessons. I cannot pass you this time. You’re just not ready.” I say nothing, just nod slowly. “Okay?” she says, tilting her head. “Um-hmm,” I lie. I am not okay. A minute ago I was captain of the swim team, standing on my diving block waiting to take the gold. Now, I am a dejected loser.

Lynn and I get up from the table and make our way to the pool. She puts her arm on my shoulder, but inside I recoil. It’s too late. I cannot bear her touch now. I am nothing but a disappointment to her. I spend our final class togetherswimming-97509_640 sulking. My movements are sluggish, slow. Every splash of water laughs at me mockingly. My heart is too heavy to swim, to float. The woman I love does not love me back–cannot love me back. She cannot even find it in her heart to pass me in swim class.

Love doesn’t come in a minute,
sometimes it doesn’t come at all
I only know that when I’m in it
It isn’t silly, no, it isn’t silly, 
love isn’t silly at all.

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.

photo (26)

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.

photo (27)

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.

photo (28)

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.

 

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.

Go home and see your mother!

Going_and_ComingAs a little boy, I remember visiting my dad’s mom every Mother’s Day. My mom’s mom probably came to visit us at our house, but everyone went to see Nana–she did not usually come to you. The ride there was always quick, as she only lived two towns over, so it was usually pleasant, especially at this time of year. The trees would be dripping with flowers, and the sickening sweet smells of lilacs and honeysuckle would intoxicate the air.

On one occasion, I remember my dad was in a very playful mood. We passed a few country clubs on the road, and there were always golfers on the greens. Well, this Mother’s Day, my dad rolled down the window and yelled out to these men “Go home and see your mother!” All eight passengers who were crammed in the car thought this was hilarious. Since dad did this after passing golf course number one, us seven kids asked if we could yell it out as we drove by the second course. He agreed. We were ecstatic with excitement

“On the count of three. One. Two. Three. GO HOME AND SEE YOUR MOTHER!” Seven children clamoring out the windows to shame these golfers for not spending Mother’s Day with wives and mothers. Shame, shame, shame! Some looked up, I’m sure, but I remember being too afraid to actually seek a reaction–I thought I was cool just shouting this out the window–to a bunch of adults, no less.

I recalled this memory yesterday, when I passed a beautiful golf course at the height of Spring. It is such a fleeting moment, but it is one of the sweeter, unencumbered memories I have. Until I was a teenager, whenever I went to visit my Nana, whether with the whole family or just my dad, I would usually roll down my window and shout this phrase as we drove by any golfers. It didn’t matter the time of year or the season, I just loved shouting these words to golfers: “Go home and see your mother!” Nothing like some good old Irish guilt to pass around.

So, on this day where Americans celebrate mom, I hope that you were able to enjoy your family, especially those mothers in your lives. And if your mother happens to be far away or has passed on, I hope that you are comforted with happy memories of home, and of her.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the moms who read this blog, especially my wife, Pam. Our boys are very lucky to know your love. And to my own mom. Thanks for your love and support.

Anger 2.0

The awakening began when I met my wife, Pam. She is a beautiful person, with all of the traits that I needed in order to find peace.  Pam is patient, reserved, tactful, kind, understanding.  We are complete opposites, but we are complete. Pam and I found each other at the right time.  Meeting at thirty, we both knew more of what we wanted in a partner.  I had been quite successful at playing the role of “happy” with a “healthy” existence.  I was a teacher, I went to church more than not, I led a decent life, I tried to be on good terms with everyone in my family. When I married her, I was not prepared for the emotional turmoil it would dredge up for me.  I had successfully stuffed all of my anger tightly inside.  It took the serenity of marrying normal to bring it spewing forth.

I recall one night in early spring when I sat on the front porch of our new house. I had just finished a full day’s work of planting and mulching, and sat down to enjoy the peace and calm of a cool April night. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of pride–I was a man working the land, enjoying a well deserved beer after a hard day of work.  But there it was, that voice inside me, reminding me that all of this was a sham.  “Who are you kidding? This can’t be yours? Don’t forget where you came from. You’ll never escape that.”

In a funny way, it reminds me of the Talking Heads song “Once in a Lifetime”:

You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful house
You may tell yourself, this is not my beautiful wife …You may ask yourself, well, how did I get here?

Indeed, I asked myself, How did I get HERE? I truly felt I didn’t deserve to be in that house. Perhaps it was my Irish Catholic guilt, but I was burdened with the idea that I was living in a single home on a beautiful corner lot. A far cry from the twin I grew up in–the small house I shared with nine others, the bedroom where 5 boys slept, the one shower. Rather than feel I had achieved a goal of having more than I did as a kid, I felt guilty. Why me? What’s so special about me that I can have a better life now? And with the guilt came the pressure. How can I live a normal life? How can I have a happy home? I don’t know how to be happy. And, as I went through the motions, I knew that I had a lot to reconcile before I could ever feel deserving of this new life.

About six months into our marriage, I had a panic attack. I didn’t see it coming. Emotionally, I had stuffed so much shit inside my mind, that it was literally on overload. Naively, I thought marriage would be a chance for me to reinvent who I was. I had married a normal woman, and was therefore beginning my life in my normal family. It doesn’t work that way–I still had all the flaws and hang-ups as a married man that I did when I was single.

It was a dreary day in February. A Monday. We had just spent the weekend in Punxsutawney, PA to witness the groundhog seeing its shadow. It was on my bucket list since I saw the movie with Bill Murray. There I was, in a classroom, telling a story to my students about something funny from the weekend’s festivities. I love telling stories, and students always oblige me with their attention. But that day was different.  I felt their eyes staring through me, I could hear them blinking… Laughter was always my method.  And I had made people laugh for so long that it became my refuge, my way of deflecting, my way of poking fun at the world. Even the twisted stories of my youth are all ensconced in humor–and in many ways I find comfort in that, even still. But that day, the laughter turned on me. I found myself too conscientious to care about the laughs. I was exhausted–tired of pretending I could just move beyond all the pain of the past by simply ignoring it. If you’ve never had a panic attack, I can tell you it is exhausting–you feel like you’re running a marathon and having a heart attack at the same time.  It seems to block out all the noise except the muffled beating of your heart. All of the saliva from your mouth seems to drain into your palms. Amazingly, I held it together. I wanted to just run out of the room, but I managed to stay. The story came to an awkward end, and then I quickly assigned the reading of the day to be done silently. The kids were unaware of what had just happened, but I was forever changed.

When I got home, I was very quiet– emotionally and physically exhausted. It was as if three decades of pain climbed onto my back and refused to leave until I acknowledged they were there. At dinner, when I told Pam, I could see the fear in her eyes. I tried to assuage her concerns, but I was fearful myself. The following few weeks were a fog. I continued to teach, and waited for the next attack to come. Pam was so sweet, offering encouragement, leaving me cards, even investigating possible causes. I remember her telling me how she read that artificial sweetener can be a cause of anxiety, knowing I used many packs of Equal in my coffee each day. But I knew the toxin–it wasn’t saccharin– it was years of suppressed anger and pain.

After that initial attack, I do not remember having any other full-blown episodes. There were times when I would get nervous, and feel the symptoms starting, but I was able to keep them in check with breathing deeply (don’t knock it til you try it) and positive thinking (talking oneself off the ledge). Yet, from that initial anxiety attack, I slumped into a terrible depression. I was so removed from any daily connection. I felt exhausted all the time. I felt sad. I felt hollow. For so long, I tried to be optimistic. I tried to pretend the past wasn’t as bad as I remembered, that everyone has their “cross in life”. But now my body refused to let me pretend anymore. It was shutting down, saying, YOU BETTER WORK THIS OUT OR I WILL. Before this, I often wondered how one would know if he was depressed–I mean clinically depressed. Trust me, you’d know.

I can remember confiding in a few friends about my situation, but unless you have experienced something similar, you really can’t understand. In one conversation, with a very close friend, I tried to convey how sad I was.”Really? You seem the same. I don’t notice anything different about you.” How could I be completely different and seem the same to those around me? I guess it’s the power of the facade we put up for others. At home, Pam and I were tentative with each other. I didn’t want her to think I felt as bad as I did, and she didn’t want me to think she was as worried as she was. Yet, what fueled my anger, and my depression even more so, was the fear, the threat, that I was recreating a dynamic that I had grown up with– a distant father, a man who closed himself off from the world; a husband and wife who could never find equal footing; a home where unspoken angers and fears were as present as the people who occupied the rooms. It made me question everything.  Should I have kids? Could I ask Pam to stay in this marriage if I was no longer the person she thought she married?  How was I going to ever get beyond these feelings of emptiness and sadness?

I knew I it was time to see a therapist (finally). I made an appointment and waited for my life to begin again.

These paintings are the work of M. Drake. You can purchase his work at http://www.gallerydirect.com/art/artists/m-drake