Portrait of the Artist

You are a Crusader

The runner’s high kicks in at the one mile marker. My brain buzzes and the tiny hairs on the nape of my neck tingle. I am euphoric.

For the second year in a row, as many as the race has been held, I am participating in a 5k in my hometown: The St. John of the Cross Crusader Challenge. St. John of the Cross. The parish where I spent 8 years of grade school under the tutelage of Immaculate Heart nuns. Where I was an altar server, a mass lector, and a parishioner through college. The place of my brother’s wedding, my father’s funeral. This place holds a lifetime of memories–from what is now a lifetime ago.

My mother asked me to do the race last year. Said I was the only one she could count on to participate. I caved to her request and she missed the whole thing–arriving an hour after the race finished. When she would complain how her other children didn’t even bother to show up, I reminded her that neither did she. “Oh, well…” she’d say.

I have trouble visiting home. For one, my mother sold our house and now lives in an apartment. Truth is, though, I wasn’t sad. It was such a small house–a twin. And there were nine of us living in it. And there was always chaos and turmoil. Once, when I was driving to the nearby mall, I took my son, Owen, who was about four at the time, down the street where I grew up. “That’s where Daddy lived!” I said, pointing. “In the yellow and white house, Daddy?” he asked. “Just the yellow side, Honey.” I said, somewhat bitterly. Mr. Onebedroomforfiveboys trying to explain the concept of a twin home to his son, Mr. Ownroominafourbedroom Colonial.

The homecoming is bittersweet. Bitter because the school is closed–has been for several years, and the parish membership is waning, as well–a reflection of many, once-thriving Catholic churches and parochial schools. Sweet because I see many familiar faces and have many fond memories of the years I spent traipsing back and forth to school, playing on those fields, praying in those pews. The nostalgia overwhelms me. I can map out every classroom I was taught in and recall the teachers as well. First grade, second room on right in the primary hall, Sister Ann George; Second grade, opposite end of primary hall, second classroom on the left, Sister Joseph Agnes…

As I enter the auditorium, I am greeted by many of the mothers whom I know. Several of my mom’s best friends are assisting with registration, t-shirts, directions. My mom is nowhere to be found. She’ll show up late again, I think. The orange glow from the fluorescent lights sends me back in time– to performing on the stage, playing basketball for the intramural teams, attending the parish Christmas bazaars, even winning a pinewood derby for my Cub Scout pack. I move outside to the “playground”; the blacktop where I enjoyed many games of tag, wall ball and ring out. There is no play set–no swings or slide–those were only for public school kids. The once-firm macadam is now rubble, the faded hop-scotch numbers barely recognizable. I pass the steps where the fifth and sixth graders would line up–the steps from which baseball card collectors would toss “doubles” to anxious kids–right next to the “Spit Pit”, concrete steps leading to a cellar, where much coveted cards would be thrown, and some would risk a saliva attack to claim a prized player–a Greg Luzinski or Steve Carlton. I do my pre-race stretching on another set of steps, where I recall clapping the erasers in many grades–I can almost taste the chalk dust in the air. There are times, like now, when my mind plays tricks. Where I feel like I am seeing this through the eyes of a 7, or 10, or 12 year-old. So little has changed around this campus physically, yet, when I snap back to present day, I realize, so much in me–and the world– has changed.

There are about a hundred people at the starting line–a mix of walkers and runners. There is a Mummer’s String Band Quartet playing Dixieland music, and the fire station has brought a truck to display the American flag. One girl sings the National Anthem while the rest of us are awkwardly quiet. This feels like small town America to me, both in the sense that there is the unspoken fear that these towns are an endangered species–swallowed up by all the McMansions and the effects of the recession, and in the sense that there is an abiding sense of hope that good, decent people will continue to gather, will continue to rally, and support one another and live upstanding lives.

The pastor says a prayer of thanks. And then the race begins.

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My latest running song is “Wake Me Up” by Aloe Blacc and Avicci. I play it several times when I run. The beat is great for pacing and the lyrics captivate my mind:

Feeling my way through the darkness
Guided by a beating heart
I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start
They tell me I’m too young to understand
They say I’m caught up in a dream
Well life will pass me by if I don’t open up my eyes
Well that’s fine by me

So wake me up when it’s all over
When I’m wiser and I’m older
All this time I was finding myself, and I
Didn’t know I was lost

Before today, the lyrics made me think of parenting. How parenting is like feeling my way through the darkness. How none of us knows where the journey will end–or for whom it will end first. The lyrics are almost like a dialogue between a parent and a child–to me–because that’s where I am in my life. But today, I am seeing things through the eyes of my younger self. I am the child, yet, I’m wiser and I’m older. I feel this dance between my selves take shape early on in the race, and find myself switching perspectives throughout. I pass the tree that we planted in eighth grade–thirty some years ago–and think that it should be bigger. I run along the sidewalk where I was once a safety–I loved wearing that neon badge. I see the church spire in the distance, and reflect on how much my religious life has changed in the past decades. How I no longer go to church, or consider myself a Catholic, and yet how I’ve never felt more at peace and less fearful in my life. I may not be religious anymore, but I am spiritual; I feel blessed in so many ways.

All this time I was finding myself, and I didn’t know I was lost.

I hear these words as I enter Roslyn Park–a childhood hangout for sports and trouble making. A woman holds up a sign to encourage the runners. It reads: “You are a crusader.” My eyes sting with tears. I am so moved by this statement. I feel like a crusader. I feel like I have fought to be where I am in my life– to make peace with my past and try to be a good man. To have authentic relationships in my life. To live in the moment with my wife and kids. To be true to myself.

Each of us is on a path, and so many stops seem predetermined for us. I think about what I can control–very little but my reaction sometimes. I know all this, and yet, I think of how frustrated I’ve been the last couple days. I think about my mother.

The other day I was reading a book that described an “adult relationship” with one’s parents. I was completely baffled by the term: A-D-U-L-T Relationship? “Is that possible?” I thought. It mentioned foreign concepts like “boundaries” and “privacy” and “independence”.     I was dumbfounded.

I love my mother. I really do. But sometimes I think that’s the problem. Love confuses things. It can weigh upon a person. And if that love just happens to be Catholic, it is wrapped very tightly with guilt and shame and fear and more guilt. My mother is obsessed with death (for more on that, read this). She cannot get enough of bad news. I have told her this makes me uncomfortable. I have asked her not to talk about certain things in front of the kids –like DEATH–yet she cannot seem to help herself. The other night I invited her for dinner. Here are some highlights from her visit:

Two minutes into visit:

MOM: There was a guy on Katie (Couric) today with no arms who painted the most beautiful pictures. You should bring them up online and show the boys. (My son’s look at their arms, and then at me).

ME: Oh, wow. That’s sounds incredible–but they’re about to start homework.

MOM: And Katie asked him how he eats, and he said he eats with his feet. (Now worried that we’re not paying attention, or horrified enough, or grateful enough for having all of our limbs, she deliveries a tidbit to each of us) And Hayden (7), he says he washes his feet before meals the way other people wash their hands. (Hayden looks at his hands, then his feet). And Owen (8), he showed her how he puts food in his mouth with his feet (Owen puts down the apple slice he was about to eat). And Michael (aging rapidly), he brushes his teeth with his feet, and writes with his feet, and…Oh! And she also had a woman on who was shot in the face and she–

Me: MOM!!! Please! They don’t need to hear this stuff.

Mom: (feeling wounded) Well, you should at least check out the guy’s paintings.

Me: Okay, boys, let’s start your homework. Come on over here, Mom. Want some coffee? …

Twenty minutes in:

Mom: I told you about my friend Peg’s son, right?

Me: No.

Mom: Dropped dead at work. They think it was an aneurysm.

Me: That’s terrible, Mom.

Mom: Yeah. Forty-eight. You never know.

Thirty minutes in:

Mom: (excitedly) Michael, guess who died?

Me: Who?

Mom: Helen Planter (a lady who worked at the school where my father was Athletic Director). She was ninety-three.

Me: Oh, boy. That’s a long life.

The night continues with two more deaths, a few cancer scares, and the latest update on her doctor’s visits. There is also the tenuous topic of family.

My family is a collection of strained relationships. I gave my mom a book a couple weeks ago entitled Make Peace With Anyone. When I ask her if she read any of it, she replies, “I tried to, but you know I’m not good with that sort of stuff.” “What, PEACE?” I think.  I do not think everyone in my house has been on speaking terms since the Carter Administration. Each decade gets a bit worse. Currently, I have relationships with three out of six of my siblings. This inability to communicate seems to have been inherited from my parents. I am sad by this, but I realize that being invested in other people’s lives is not always possible. Again, boundaries. Who knew? My mom tries to plead her case about disputes she is having. “I could be dead in two weeks,” she says, playing the victim. “Any one of us could be dead in two weeks, Mom. Any one of us.”

By the time she leaves, I am exhausted. Pam can see it in my face. There is a weariness. I am spent. I would love to have a nice visit with my mom, but instead I become anxious, angry, and more aware of that funny mole on my neck (“You never know,” I can hear her say).

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As the race continues, I find myself becoming more exhilarated with every step. The air is crisp, and the autumn sun makes the leaves shine with extra brilliance. I come to the end of the park, and look at the field where my dad coached township football. I give a nod to the field: “You loved that game, Dad”, I think, and look up to the sky. I am thankful for a purely positive memory of my father. I feel great coming to the end of the second mile. All that has burdened me this past week seems to be lifting. I think: So, you’ll teach your children to be lifelong friends. You’ll show them that love is not always easy, but it’s always there for them. You will strive to have adult relationships with them when they are grown. 

I am approaching the most challenging part of the course–Grisdale. Grisdale is a monster of a hill. Everyone in a five-mile radius has a story about Grisdale. About soaring down it on a bike, or a skateboard, or a sled. It is steep, and I am about to climb it. Anxiously, I begin the ascent. I am a few yards up the incline, when I see a car trying to come down the road. It seems to be diagonal–taking up most of the street. The driver is attempting to turn, but racers keep moving around the car. I am instantly annoyed. What the hell is this person doing? Bad enough to be driving through the race, but this person is clueless. The driver seems paralyzed. I look at the car in disgust. I am now close enough to see the driver. It is a woman. It is an older woman. It is my MOTHER.

As a runner who happens to teach English, I am constantly made aware of the metaphors that the running life will present to me. This one’s a doozy. My friggin’ mother is blocking up the entire road of the hardest part of the race. She is an obstacle–my obstacle–stuck in the middle of the road. Wreaking havoc and causing panic. I feel my resentment build. But then, I check myself. “STOP!” I say to myself. “Stop it! This is your mother. If you keep viewing her as an obstacle, she will forever be your obstacle.” When I’m wiser and I’m older... I shift my focus. My mom is here, right in front of me, at the hardest part of the race. And she is a sign of support–encouragement. “Go, Michael!!” I hear her yell. I run up to her car and high five her through the window. “Thanks, Mom!” I say. Then, I make it up the hill faster than the year before. The end of the race is in sight.

Having to climb that beast means that I am now at the top of the highest point in my town. The view is expansive–breathtaking. On a clear day, I could see Philadelphia from here. I charge down the hill and round the corner where I spy the finish line. My mom is already there, waiting for me.

I do not stop immediately at the finish line–I need to walk and catch my breath. By the time I get back to the crowd, my mom has already called my cell phone. “I thought you left,” she says. “Really?” I say. I give her a hug. I am glad to be here with her on this crisp morning in October. I feel like although it is rather limited, I was able to go home again. My mom brags to her friends about me running. “Only one of my kids who could do that,” she says. I feel sorry for my brothers and sisters. Then I hear her start to talk to one of her friend’s daughters. “I give the shirts out at the race for that little boy who died,” she begins. I cringe.

Boundaries, Michael. BOUNDARIES.

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Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man: Now with Man Boobs

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My son Owen’s latest rendition of me. This was a quick sketch he did the other night to delay going to bed. You can tell it’s summer because he drew me shirtless (which I was not at the time) and he has me wearing shorts. This is his first attempt at giving me hair all over: On my legs it looks a bit like lacy ballet slippers; my beard is actually just a few days of summer scruff, and my chest hair looks like a tattoo of an oak tree. Also, his attempt at giving me pecs makes it appear as if I am in the middle of a gender reassignment–I am not:) Owen is very cute, though. He said, “I’m going to draw you thinking about your 2 favorite things–coffee and cake.” And I think that’s a book flying towards my hands. Got to admit, this boy knows his father–even if he still gives him the arms of a T-Rex.

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.

 

Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man, numbers 4 and 5

This is a series of weird drawings my kids make of me. I haven’t posted one in quite some time, but both boys have drawn renderings lately that I could not resist.

Daddy and Donkey Kong, by: Hayden (6)

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Hayden drew this for me because he loves trying to help me get better at Wii. In my speech bubbles, I am saying “Do I have to hold any buttons?”

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Dear Daddy, by: Owen (8)

Owen drew this picture of me to go along with his Christmas letter from school (he always seems to leave out a body part). The letter moved me so much, that I chose not to share it publicly. Some moments are meant to be private! I’ll just say that in the letter he says I am a “wonderful dad!” Sniff. Sniff. Boy, I’m trying to live up to that– but some days I certainly fall way short.

The thing I love about these drawings, all the ones featured in Portrait of an Artist, is the fact that these boys don’t care what I look like–no matter what, they think I’m pretty cool. So, whenever I feel like a load, or wonder if any amount of sit-ups will ever get rid of my belly doughnut, I am reminded that looks do not matter nearly as much as memories and experiences.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with a funny example: One day recently, we were walking in the woods with our dog, Rufus. The boys suggested we play “I spy…” It was Owen’s turn, and he said, “I spy something gray.” And Hayden shouted, “Daddy’s mini hair!” And we all burst out laughing. Bald jokes rank just below potty humor in our house:) One of the best things about children is that they teach us to laugh at ourselves–life’s too short to take it all so seriously.

Portrait of an Artist as a Weird Man: Number 3

Have you ever wondered what the lovechild of McDonald’s Mayor McCheese and Mrs. Potato Head would look like? Me neither.

But I got a pretty good idea when my son, Owen, drew this picture to accompany the Father’s Day Essay he wrote me this year.

Holy Hot Sweet Potatoes!  I love this wacky rendering of me–it’s probably what I look like on the inside. I do have to say, however, that I am bothered by Owen’s decision to draw me with abnormally short arms (he has done this before). Do you think it’s his subconscious way of telling me I really have no control over him? Probably. On the other hand, he certainly has captured my sense of style–checkers, anyone?

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:)