writing

Now Apologize!…To Yourself

I just found this gem when I was cleaning out the mail cubby. Back in the fall, our second grader, Hayden, was sent home with a note from the principal. Seems he had pulled his pants down during lunch to show his friends his new Star Wars underwear (so he says). As part of his punishment, we made him write apology notes to the lunch lady, his teacher, and his friends at the lunch table. That night, as I went to collect the notes and put them in his backpack, I found this:

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Once again, seeing things through the eyes of a child is so enlightening. When’s the last time you said sorry to yourself? I don’t think I ever have. Never too late to start, though.

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My Third Grader Learns the Meaning of Irony

Below is a copy of Owen’s first official essay. He was very proud of his work. And upset when he discovered what happened to it. Yep, the dog ate his homework. Please note the title/topic of his piece.

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“Trick-or-treat, smell my feet, my son’s gonna need therapy!”

Halloween season is finally over! If you are of a certain age, you remember when Halloween lasted a day. Just one day. Now it seems like everywhere you turn there’s a hayride to climb or a pumpkin to carve. When we were young, there weren’t aisles and aisles of candy and costumes and decorations in every store on every other corner. I swear, Target‘s Halloween section was as big as the entire A&P of my youth.  Don’t get me wrong, I love Halloween, and we had fun this year, but I am pumpkined out.

The weekend before trick-or-treating we took the boys on a moonlight hayride at a local farm. There were rolling fields and 300 year-old oak trees, and a beautiful creek–Prophecy Creek. The hayride led us to a roaring bonfire, where we drank hot chocolate and cider, painted pumpkins, and listened to a storyteller regale the crowd with stories that were just this side of spooky. It was a crisp night, and the clear sky dazzled with stars. It was a perfect way to get us into the Halloween spirit. But, of course, we couldn’t leave well enough alone.

There is a house right up the road from us that has a huge old barn on its property. For the past three years, they have created a “haunted” barn and people have raved about it. I couldn’t get a read on if it was too scary/gory/hellish from people’s comments, and the kids at the boys’ school were talking it up this year. As with many things, the people who were willing to be spooked surprised me. Like the little girl in Owen’s class who went through the barn last year, in second grade, while her two brothers, one several years older, backed out. I don’t say “chickened out” because I am a recovering chicken, and frightening images can do a number on someone–I know they did a number on me. (Note: I still can’t even watch the preview for the Carrie remake as I am still scarred from the original).

We drive by this barn multiple times a day, and this year we toyed with the idea of going. Owen, our older son, seemed game from the start, his brother Hayden seemed less so. Perhaps emboldened from our time spent out in the night, we decided we would try the scary barn after the hayride. We met some friends there –a father and son. The son had attempted to go through the barn two previous years. This was the year he would make it.

In the end, Owen backed out (could have inherited my chicken gene), so Pam stayed with him while Hayden and I went in with the other father and son. BIG MISTAKE. WE’RE TALKING PSYCHOLOGICALLY SCARRING. It’s a barn. I thought we would just walk from one end to the other and see various scenes partitioned off. No! This thing had scaffolding, winding staircases, three floors of bizarre terror, hidden doors, narrow paths, and black curtains that clung to our bodies. I felt like I was in every teen slasher movie from the eighties with a dash of Apocalypse Now thrown in for further damage–and all the while I had my seven-year-old buried in the pit of my arm. I tried to shield him from so many things–but he saw more than enough. Here’s a bright idea: perhaps I should have gone through on my own first to judge the fear factor. Had that epiphany two days after the fact. Sometimes, I am amazed at my thick head. “Oh, right, I’m the adult in charge!”

Hayden was very brave. He even guided us through one of the rooms when I was confused. And he held it together until the very end, when we spied the exit and he ran toward it and cried. Hard. Like he was auditioning for the role of the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz : “I do believe in spooks, I do, I do, I do…”

Before we even got home, I gave Hayden five bucks for making it all the way through, for there was no turning back once we were in there. Then at home I gave him cookies AND ice cream–trying to wash away his fear-soaked tears with some sugar. And I stayed with him in his bed that night, upon his request. Surprisingly, he slept soundly through the night. The next day he was even bragging a little about it to our neighbors, but I could see he was still freaked out by what he saw. By the end of the weekend it seemed like a distant memory, much to my relief.

The next day, he came running up the driveway from the bus, waving a notebook in his hands. It was his journal from school. “I snuck it home ’cause I wasn’t finished writing my story.”  “Oh, what is your story about?” I asked. “It’s called ‘The Barn of Terror’!” he proclaimed with the pride of a survivor. That made it official. The night of frights left an indelible mark. I felt like a bad parent. I know that many bizarre sights await my sons, I just wished I hadn’t been responsible for my youngest one’s worst scare in his life. Here, you read it and tell me if the scars will linger, as I fear they will.

Now, without further adieu, I give you Hayden’s story: (Note his use of eery onomatopoeia–DON DON DON!!!!)

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Chapter 1 The Terrifying Barn

I was at Prophecy Creek then I went to the DON DON DON terrifying barn.

I waited in line with my friend Thomas then it was my turn DON DON DON.

I went in and there was blood dripping down the wall. My dad didn’t see it.

There were fake skeletons hiding behind

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a fake potion. Oh, and we had a line it went

my dad, me, Thomas, and his dad. We saw a person chained

to something with fake blood on him and he was

yelling, “Help me!” I was like “Get me out of here!”

There was a goblin shaking jail bars that scared the

heck out of me. I almost fainted!It was so scary that

when I came out I started to cry.

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Chapter 2 Can’t Sleep

I said, “There is no favorite part for me.”

I got $5 for doing it, then I had $16.

My dad said, “You can have whatever you want.”

It ends there. He ran out of steam, I guess. It’s been a week

and he appears to be unscathed from the whole thing.

I just wonder what he will be like next year, when the sign appears outside the barn. Perhaps he and Owen will walk up to it in a few years with their friends. They’ll probably go repeatedly like the kids next door do. Whatever happens, I know one thing for sure. There’s no way in hell I’m going back in. Once is enough for me.

“I do not speak the minds of others…

…except to speak my own mind better.”

I am a lover of quotations. The brevity. The clarity. So much contained in so little. During the school year, I begin every day by sharing a quotation with my students. It allows me to impart wisdom to these young people that would take me years to articulate. And I can draw on the observations and lessons from men and women who lived thousands of years ago, or are a part of the morning headlines. Such is the power of words.

Take this quote above by the great thinker and essayist Michel de Montaigne from the 16th Century. A simple Google search about quotations led me to the mind of this popular statesman from the French Renaissance. And once I was captured by his words on quotations, I became immersed in many more of his observations about life, love, marriage, human nature…all topics that are timeless and hard to describe succinctly.

My family and I are on vacation this week. So, I thought I’d take this opportunity over the next few days to share with you some observations from what I’ve been reading. These words from others help me speak my own mind better. Indeed.

The first is from a woman whose name I do not even know. Her words appeared in the advice column “Tell Me About It”, by: Carolyn Hax. I have been reading Ms. Hax’s column for over fifteen years now, and I always find her advice spot on–I also have a little crush on her:) The beauty of an advice column is that one can glimpse wisdom and stupidity in the predicaments of others. Take these words from a woman reflecting on a slight that occurred fifty years ago when she was a teenager. Her thoughts half-a-century later:

“Parents need to understand that it is their job to foster love and understanding, not bitterness and hate within their children. Children who find love in the world grow up with self-esteem and self-worth. Those who do not, spend their lives looking for slights wherever they go.”

These words flooded my mind with images of people I know who are always feeling slighted–looking for people to blame for their unhappiness in the world. It only took two sentences to remind me of my mission as a father: to create an environment for my sons where they are able to grow up with self-esteem and self-worth.  It is my job to allow them to find love in the world. That love starts with me. Thank you for the reminder.

Check out more wisdom from Carolyn Hax and her readers at http://www.washingtonpost.com/pb/page/carolyn-hax .

Oedipus Rex is in the house.

This is my son Hayden’s worksheet for Top Frog of the Week. He has been counting down the days to this since September. He wanted to fill out the form as soon as he came home from school today, even though his frog title is not official for another two weeks. As I went over to the table to view his hard work, I was somewhat bothered by his misspelling of my name–the only one he struggled with, apparently. Do you think six is too young for me to explain a Freudian Slip?

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It’s All My Teacher’s Fault

Good news! My first book was picked up! Okay, it was picked up by me–a couple weeks ago. I found it buried in a box of memorabilia while I was looking for Christmas decorations–you know how one box leads you to another, then another, and then you’re looking at crap from forty years ago that has nothing to do with decorating a Christmas tree? Yeah, me neither. Anyhow…I found this book I wrote in third grade–1978!! During that year, my dad had a massive heart attack and my grandmother on my mother’s side died of cancer. It was a very dark year in the Trainer household. And, as I recall, my teacher, Mrs. Deturo, had me meet with the guidance counselor, Mrs. Brent, who encouraged me to write about the experience–express my feelings through writing. The result is the masterpiece that has been digitally remastered for your viewing pleasure below on this very website. So, without further ado, I present to you Nine is Enough.

photo (13)photo (12)photo (11)photo (10)photo (9)photo (8)photo (7)photo (6)photo (5)photo (4)photo (3)photo (2)photoFirst, let me say that this particular brick contact paper used to cover the book was limited edition–sold exclusively at Grants before their closing in ’76. And, don’t worry, I may be trying my hand at writing, but I promise I will never publish my own illustrated book–my gosh–look at those scenes from the story (I find the “Schools” one particularly compelling).

Yet, as I read over this story, I realize that perhaps the seeds were planted in me at a very young age to write about my experiences–to process my thoughts and feelings through writing. A teacher took the time to care about me and have me talk about my issues with another educational professional. I am lucky to have had these people in my life. And, in some respects, I feel I have been drafting the second book in my head ever since.

Writing My Wrongs

Javier PachecoA few weekends ago, a friend of mine, a guy I’ve known for most of my life, was talking to me about my blog. He likes it. He thinks it’s been a good platform for me.  “I think you found your new therapist,” he said. I think he’s right. Writing is very therapeutic. It is a great outlet, a way for one to process  thoughts, ideas, fears and fantasies. Writing this blog has allowed me to do that.

I’ve been blogging now for three months. Recently, I’ve been sitting on a piece that was hard for me to write. And it got me thinking about why I do this…Should I do this?? And the answer I keep coming back to is “Yes!” This blog has been a wonderful experience for me. It has reinvigorated some old friendships; it has brought me many new perspectives; it has connected me with people across the globe and right in my own backyard. If you have been reading it, I want to thank you. Thank you for letting me in, for letting me rant and reveal, pontificate and pester. Thank you for visiting with me—if only for a few moments in your week.

A lot of people claim to like the format of my blog. How I write about an incident that happened with the boys just moments ago, and then throw in a piece from my past. To some, it may seem random, but this blend is purposeful. My past makes up my present. When I see my sons, when I look at the man I am in front of them, I am a father, but I am also a husband, brother, son, friend, student, teacher, neighbor. All of who I am is represented when I parent.  I am the sum of my parts, as you are, too. And I am constantly seeking a better understanding of that. Bringing in the past allows me to do that more, and, hopefully, better.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you know I have been brutally honest about my upbringing and my experiences in my family—both current and past. In talking to another friend, she cautioned me to not forget the good stuff in the past. That is an important reminder, and I thank her for that. I did not start this blog with an axe to grind or out of anger. I am saddened by some of the topics I cover, but they are what resonate with me.  I am not trying to play the blame game or point fingers, I am merely trying to write about my experiences. These are the memories and the relationships I have struggled with.

One of those relationships is with my mother. When I was young, I thought my mother was a living saint. Married so young (21) and 7 kids by thirty. With little means, she made the most of it. She gave us each a spark of her personality. She taught us how to have a big heart and she loved us all the best she could. I was hesitant to show her my blog because I thought it may offend her. However, I did not want to do this behind her back. Around my birthday, she stopped by to drop off a cake for me. We visited for a while, and then I asked her to sit and read the blog. I was so nervous  I went for a run while she perused each entry. When I got back, I was relieved (and surprised) that she loved it. I asked her how she felt about the entries where she may have looked bad. She exclaimed, “Well, it’s all true. How could I be mad?” What a great moment for mother and son. Permission to tell the truth. I recently came across a quote that speaks to this very theme: “The truth hurts for a little while, but a lie hurts forever.” This blog is my truth.

My father also did his best. He lived during a difficult time for men to be alive— they were taught not to show their emotions. My dad was a boy during The Great Depression; he never went to college, yet he was very smart; he never made it passed middle management in the insurance business. He was a staunch Catholic with a strong moral code. He had some bad breaks in his life, like a heart-attack at age 44, and he never truly found peace on this Earth. My father has been deceased for more than a decade and a half. There is some guilt in me for writing about him when he no longer has a voice. I feel bad that he is not here to speak with me about these words I write, but sadly, I think if he was here, and he read what I wrote, he would not speak to me. Perhaps it would be different. Perhaps.

These are my parents, and they are flawed—as we all are. And it is through their flaws that my identity was formed, and that of my six brothers and sisters. And I cannot stop what I have started. I believe in the power of writing and its ability to bring us to a greater understanding. If I ever come across as whiny or petulant, please call me out on it. And please understand that the writing you find on these pages has been developing in my mind for years, decades even. I do not write about the past without having given it much consideration and deliberation.

Finally, some thoughts from the teacher in me. When I talk to my high school students about writing, I inform them that the word essay means an attempt; to try. These essays I write are my attempts. Like all attempts, some will be more successful than others.  Which brings me to my second teacher point. When I discuss the art of argument with students, I explain to them the old adage “Everything’s an argument.”  I tell them that what we are trying to do when arguing is “enter the conversation.” My blog is my attempt to enter the conversation. I have something to say, and I am glad I am finding a way to say it. I have started a conversation and I would love it if you would join me.

What do you have to say? Tell me your thoughts. Let me know what topics you would like me to cover more. If you blog, what scares you about writing? Please let me know what you are thinking. It matters.