(As appearing on The Today Show Parenting site)
http://community.today.com/parentingteam/post/i-am-my-fathers-son

My father was not your Ozzie and Harriet type of dad. Never coached a little league game. Never taught me to ride a bicycle. Didn’t take me on college tours or help with algebra homework. Didn’t wear cardigans, smoke a pipe or drink martinis. No camping, no house repairs, no trips abroad or broad observations on life.

But even though he was no troop leader or corporate bigwig, he gave me the world even when he sometimes had nothing to give. Showering me with unconditional love and never leaving me emotionally out in the cold. Never asking, demanding or requiring a single apology or explanation even when he deserved them time and again. Always rising to the occasion and demonstrating pride in my achievements.

He taught me to be kind to everyone and generous to all. Never to tip less than 20%. To always keep your car trunk clean and your fuel tank full. To never become self-involved or self-loathing. To always find humor in everything especially the Marx Brothers and Mel Brooks. Never to fret over what might have been but to focus on what possibly still may be.

Even as he battles cancer at 81 years old, he still starts our daily conversations off by asking me how I feel, and what he can do for me. My concerns are his concerns, and my happiness is his happiness. 3,000 miles apart and through his voice, I can feel the gentle way he used to run his strong hands over my fresh summer crew-cut.

And it’s for these reasons and a thousand more than I wanted to be a dad. To embrace everything he was to me and deliver all that – and more – to my children morning, noon and night. To be prepared for the seismic and microscopic changes fatherhood would, and continue to bring.

You see… even though he wasn’t the traditional dad with a leather tool belt and a bag full of answers, he equipped me with all those human tools essential for being a good dad. To listen to, and learn from, your children even when you’re feeling down, or out of ideas. To let them go left and right, and be right by their side always. To tell the truth even when the truth hurts, and then to take away the hurt before it scars.

And, most importantly, to take delight in seeing your son evolve as the type of dad beyond your own comprehension.

You see, unlike him, I have coached. I have led the college tour circuit from state to state. I am a whiz at homework help and can even pull off the occasional cardigan. I riotously cheer from the stands and from the sidelines. I can paint a room, wield a hammer and even help sell Girl Scout cookies. And I can jump rope and hopscotch with the best of them.

You see, that seismic change from “me” to “them” (and really “us”) was there from my start. My father had instilled that sense of something bigger than myself within me. He had no father in his life… I had a dad bigger than life. And that prepared me for that ground-shaking shift to fatherhood.

Life changes in profound ways when you have kids. Parenthood makes everything feel bigger and smaller, louder and softer, happier and scarier all the time. It’s a topsy and turvy existence as if you fell through a rabbit hole and ended up in place where you’re always chasing time. Chasing time so you can slow it to a crawl and make every second and minute count.

But from the time I was small, I knew fatherhood was my calling. And that’s because of my dad. I saw it in his eyes every time he looked at me. That sense of purpose and the unbridled wonder of it all.

And if I’ve given to my daughters even a small amount of what my father has given to me, one day, I know they’ll understand what every parent sees each and every time they look into their child’s eyes. The stars, the moon and the infinite possibilities of a trillion lifetimes.

(as appearing on The Washington Post Parenting site :
https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/parenting/wp/2016/03/21/107-days-until-my-she-graduates-from-college-heres-why-that-numbers-significant/

As I write this, there are 107 days until my daughter graduates from college. So will nearly two million other young adults. But, for me, this number of days holds so much significance. Because it is the same number of days that my daughter spent in the neonatal intensive care unit before she came home. What once seemed impossible is not only possible, it’s real.

One hundred and seven days. Over 9 million seconds, 154,000 minutes. Staggering numbers for a child born at 24 and a half weeks, 715 grams. It seems it’s been a numbers game since the day she was born. The question I have asked since that first of those 107 days: will the numbers add up to a life well lived?

The odds were against her. The issues, from possible brain bleeds to cerebral palsy, blindness, learning disabilities. The percentages of micro-preemies that don’t survive. The number of children needing lifetime medical care and support. Numbers after numbers stacked against us, against her.

There was constant discussion of the numbers. Watching monitors, examining charts, the daily onslaught of medical statistics. The ongoing shifting levels in oxygen, lipids, fluid intakes, a virtual statistical algorithm that never seemed to add up in our favor, her favor. How do you calculate the future?

In 107 days, she will graduate from college.

More than 21 years ago, would I have ever thought to entertain that notion, say those words? I put my faith in miracles and modern medicine, believing we could beat the odds. Beat them into submission. Every minute an eternity, every second one more hurdle. Decisions at every corner of the NICU. How much to fight and when to give in. To never give in.

Scores of doctors and nurses, rehabilitation therapists and physician assistants moving in and out of her life day in, day out. Committed and concerned, they could buoy your beliefs and deflate your dreams in a single morning. A catastrophic brain bleed mistakenly diagnosed. Heart medicine to close a valve not what the doctor ordered so surgery at five weeks. A rollercoaster ride with seemingly no end.

And then there is that moment when she doesn’t wake up for days after surgery. When you pin a doctor against a wall at 2 a.m. pouring out your anger, frustration, fears and hopes in a single invective that rails against the possible dying of the light. Exhausted physically, emotionally, financially with seemingly nothing more to give. And it all seems bleak and barren and broken. When dreams seem to dissolve and dissipate.

But suddenly, when the seconds, minutes and days seem like a blur, she opens her eyes. And you see the resolve, the tenacity and the will in someone not yet weighing two pounds. Who is a featherweight champ fighting a heavyweight fight. Who is ready. Who is ready for something bigger than we ever could have imagined.

And the seconds, minutes and hours move faster and faster as this tiny person leads you toward home. As she tips the seesaw in her direction. As she opens her tired eyes and transforms those tiny incremental numbers into something solid, something tangible. As the numbers add up and one man, one woman and one child become a family of three.

And then 107 days later, one day before her actual due date, frightened and excited husband and wife will cautiously take that one step from that NICU toward the elevator, down to the lobby and out the hospital doors. With a child bundled in blankets of joy and love as she makes the journey home with her parents at the wheel.

In 107 days, she will graduate from college, and we will watch our 21-year old daughter walk across the stage, clutching her diploma and beginning the next stage of this remarkable life. Over 9 million seconds and 154,000 minutes from now. With no limitations, only the expectations she has for herself.

Four years of liberal arts learning about the world and herself will have led to the first of many milestone moments. The strength incubated in those 107 days in that NICU isolette has prepared her for new chapters, new worlds.

But this time, as we watch those 107 days fade into the past, and we prepare for that final ride from campus to home, she will be in the driver’s seat. The open road within her sight and the infinite expanse of the universe awaiting the next 107 days, months and hopefully years of her life.

(as published in Your Teen for parents Magazine, March/April 2016

When Parenting Styles Conflict

“Dad, can you drive me to Lisa’s house? Have to be there in ten.”

“Sure. Let me get my keys.”

As I open the garage door, thundering, urgent feet resound above my head.

“Where are you going?”

“I’m taking Kate to Lisa’s house. She has to be there in five.”

“I said she couldn’t go unless she picked up her clothes from the bathroom floor. She’s playing you again. Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!”

And so it begins again. Two parents divided by one child. Opposing sides within the privacy of our four walls. No winners in a no-win game.

Teenagers have you coming and going time and again. Urban guerillas in skinny jeans and high tops, they unconsciously (consciously) work the schisms, large and small, between parents to gain advantage. And while parents often remain fortified in joint resolve, one’s ability to continuously negotiate and mitigate the damage can fracture a marriage.

I get it. As of child of parents who were never on the same page or reading from the same book, my siblings and I quickly understood that dad’s “yes” meant mom’s “no,” and vice versa We were off to race our bikes (or the movies) as they argued about the whos, whys and hows.

And it got worse. Once divorced, we did the math… division multiplied the ways we could win, and win big. Two homes… two sets of rules. You’re always on spring break when the marriage lies broken apart. Because what’s left when you can’t agree on what’s right for your kids?

When our children are babies, daily baths and dreaming of a rosy future keep cooing parents perfectly in sync. But as time moves on, and children enter their hormonal teens, diapering and daily naps evaporate into frantic discussions about when they can drive the car and whom they may date.

My wife and I… we see the big picture. We check and double check on our agreed-to checklist of what is right, and what is wrong. We check with each other before finalizing any big decisions. Face to face… in texts… on the phone… day in, day out. And most of time, we have peaceful nights on our peaceful lane.

But all it takes is an umpteenth request to drop off, pick up and clean up a sleepover mess from our it’s-all-about-me 14-year old and… what makes our house a home suddenly leaves hairline cracks in our foundation.

Suddenly, it’s…

Didn’t I know my daughter just went to the mall yesterday?
Why did I get hoodwinked into driving four of her friends all over?
Why do I need to always be so likeable?
Who raised me… wolves?

The last question sets off heated discussions about parenting style and substance well into the night. Suddenly, we are like two clan members fighting over ancestral moral territory that neither of us really cares to defend. While our teenage daughter softly slumbers, dreaming of Shawn Mendes and Ray-Bans, we are left existentially exhausted in a king-sized bed torn asunder.

It’s so funny. We seem so in tune. Treat our child badly and we’re steadfast allies taking no prisoners. Medical emergency? We are a well-trained triage team moving in perfect unison. Boyfriend troubles? Mom heals a broken heart while dad runs to Baskin-Robbins to soothe the wound.

But in seizing the role of good cop, have I forced my wife into the unwanted role of suburban shrew? We are both nurturing, honest and funny; homebodies who love being with our teenage daughters for dinner or open discussions.

But our high-school and college-age daughters see the fundamental differences in our personalities and parenting styles. My “don’t worry, be happy” attitude. My wife’s common-sense, firmer approach. My extroverted exuberance. Her introverted resiliency. Her strengths. My strengths. Our strengths, and our weaknesses.

So maybe next time I’ll text my wife before I drive my daughter… better to be safely aligned than have to say you’re sorry.

As featured on the Good Men Project.

http://goodmenproject.com/featured-content/bernie-sanders-is-a-muggle-wat/

To the generation who grew up mesmerized and transfixed by the magical, mystical world of Harry Potter, and who now flood the webosphere with incantations, clearly under an intoxicating revolutionary spell, I unfortunately need to let you in on a secret… Bernie Sanders is a Muggle.

Even with the glowing white locks of Professor Dumbledore and the sage pontifications of a wizened wizard as old as time, he possesses no potions or mandrake root to end all the ills and vices brought on by the Dark Lord (aka Lloyd Blankfein) and his evil corporate followers at Goldman Sachs. He cannot just wave his wand of phoenix feathers and make the middle class rise and the “1%” fall.

He’s just like you and me, an ordinary person living in a world where 24/7 newsfeed fears frighten us. And while as a president, he can propose how to spend trillions of dollars on what he desires for the American people – free healthcare, free public college – Fort Knox is not Gringotts. College debt cannot be replaced with governmental insolvency. We cannot overtax and over promise to leave our country under water.

Enthusiasm is exhilarating and just like Hogwarts’ students standing eagerly at King’s Cross Station, we should all be excited about a future that waits beyond the wall. We should all want to break down the walls of racism and xenophobia, greed and middle-aged complacency. But just like a box of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavour Beans, with the sweet can also come the bitter… the bitter taste of disappointment from unrealized legislation or budgetary shortfalls.

It’s easy to hate bumbling bureaucrats and authoritative technocrats that stagnate and stall progress. Umbridges and Fudges who feed off the status quo. Who restrict and constrict in an effort to maintain established power. Regular people with regulatory power.

But I have tell you… Bernie Sanders is one of those bureaucrats. Most of his career has been spent in the deathly hallowed halls of governmental edifices and sitting on committee after committee. He is part and parcel of the governmental juggernaut he continues to rail against.

To foster innovation, promote learning and protect our freedoms, it will take more than revolutionary recriminations and a cave inimicum spell to keep enemies from our shores. It will take real leadership and global experience.

I would like to believe hipsters in skinny jeans fueled by shouts of “Incendio!” will set a fire under Middle America orthodoxy… but what will rise from the ashes of a ruined, bloated economy? Not sure “feeling the bern” will feel all that good for tens of millions of Americans working good corporate jobs and sending their children off to college, public and private.

No invisibility cloak will protect us from the realities of downsizing and outsourcing. It will take collective, practical solutions to address this global problem. Slaying political dragons is one thing… decimating the Affordable Care Act is another. For a generation used to downloading free music and apps, the best things in life aren’t always free. Everyone has to pay in the end.

So I leave you with this… it’s okay that Bernie is a Muggle like you and me. Ordinary citizens can do extraordinary things. A boy scarred by life’s injustices and circumstance can change the world. Good can triumph over evil polluters and foreign despots. There is always magic in the making.

But we don’t need magical thinking to make magic happen. Flowery rhetoric is not the same as results. To make things grow, to identify concrete paths to solve everyday problems, to keep those death-panel eaters from taking the White House, we may just need a Muggle with the brains, tenacity and common-sense answers we’ve been looking for.

And as any Harry Potter fan knows, that’s Hermione. Need I say more?

 

Chinese Food Container

Four teenage girls piled into my car, clad in their Mario Brothers matching outfits – one set of green, one set red. The ritual of Halloween parties and trick-or-treating (more of a coming together of suburban teenage texters and tweeters) now officially over, the girls with their straightened hair and braces-less shiny white teeth Snapchatted and Instagrammed about where the fun would continue. Diners and peoples’ dens were all up for discussion.

“Dad, we’re hungry. Can we order Chinese?”

“No candy? Your bags look empty. I figured you’d be sugared out.”

“Dad, nobody trick or treats anymore. It’s not like we’re in middle school.”

My daughter put me in my place… which was chauffeur to the future coeds of America.

“What does everyone want? I have the restaurant on speed dial?”

(My daughter has the Chinese take-out on speed dial? She doesn’t even have me on speed dial.)

The orders flew through the car. Sesame Chicken. Lo Mein. Egg Rolls. More Sesame Chicken. It was a smorgasbord and I was footing (or should I say, careening toward) the bill).

Off we flew to the restaurant, as the girls megaphoned every song, volume be damned, they heard on the radio. I surrendered my debit card, picked up the bags (yes, bags of food) and off we went, full throttle toward home.

“Dad, do you mind if some boys come by for Chinese? They don’t want to go to the diner.”

“Okay, did you text mom?”

“All done, she said it is up to you.” (Game, set, match to my wife.)

“Will there be enough food?”

(There was enough food for most of the neighborhood and then some, but the Jewish father in me asked – God forbid, we didn’t have enough food.)

“Not a problem, dad. We are set. And thanks for doing this. You’re the best!”

Thanks… Best… I was in heaven. All it took were those long eyelashes, dimples and a few kind words and I would have flown my daughter and her friends to China first class clad in the latest from Abercrombie. I was a sucker when I was being sucked up to.

Suddenly emboldened and feeling like one of the Luigi and Mario party of freshman fillies, I made my way into the conversation.

“So, is Lisa still going out with Brent?”

Screech… You could hear a pin drop. The glare coming from the seat next to me abruptly took me from World’s Best Dad to the daddy dungeon. I had crossed the line from being cool to being iced out. The silence was more deafening than the suburban woods at night.

As we pulled into the driveway, and the girls made their way of the car, my daughter lingered, her big brown eyes locked on the side of my head.

“What were you thinking?”

“I just asked a question. I’ve known all those girls since they were five.”

“You cannot talk about anyone, dating, boys, girls, clothes, parties, anything now that I am in high school. No questions in front of my friends. It is so… icky.”

As she walked through the garage into the house, I sat there for a minute. When had I become icky? We always talk about everything and anything. Always a daddy’s girl… when did my being her favorite pop go flat? Had I walked into an adolescent twilight zone known as high school?

I stumbled into the house, playing bits of the car ride over and over in my head. My wife, who had created a virtual Chinese buffet of coordinated cutlery and plates in the kitchen, was waiting for me in the living room.

“What did you say? She just got me in the bathroom.”

“I just asked about two of her friends. I think I put my foot in it. I think she hates me.”

“She doesn’t hate you. I got the head nod, which meant leave the kitchen at once. No talking, no opening of cartons, no napkin folding.”

“What should we do now? Should we leave? Where’s the closest exit?”

My wife and I made our way up to our bedroom. The days of tea parties and tinker toys were over. Dress-up now involved heels and mascara from the mall, not crinkly polyester costumes from the Disney Store. Hand holding was meant for teenaged boys who suddenly had grown taller than the girls. It was time to let go, not time for “Let It Go.”

About an hour later, as we heard the last opening and closing of the garage doors, my daughter slipped into our room lit only by the TV screen. She had come upstairs for her toothbrush, the other girls already ensconced in the guest room downstairs for a night of no sleep and hopefully no drama.

“Just wanted to let you know we cleaned up. About to go downstairs.”

“Okay. Don’t stay up too late. Try and get some sleep.”

“Will do… and by the way, thanks for everything. We all really appreciate it. My friends think you’re the best!”

And that was worth more than its weight in egg rolls.

watching-tv

Chugging along on the elliptical, seeming to go nowhere yet moving as fast as I could, I didn’t hear the familiar voice calling my name.

“What’s going on? You look like you’ve dropped some pounds.”

“Yep. Trying to get to the gym every day. Not always so easy. Work is crazy. Kids’ practices drive me crazy. But not complaining… at least the economy is doing well.”

Are you kidding? Obama is destroying everything. Last year, we had to pay $20,000 more in taxes. I mean, we had a phenomenal year. But if I had known we had to pay more taxes, we wouldn’t have gone on vacation six times. We definitely would have rethought that last trip. I mean,  say goodbye Copenhagen! Damn Obama!”

Before I could answer or close my mouth agape in moral disbelief, I noticed Fox News glaring at me from the front of my friend’s elliptical. As if they were x-raying my left-leaning ideological soul. Perpetually on and ready to arm my friend with all the facts and figures, however twisted, that could hurl me across the gym and into the liberal primordial soup that was obviously clogging my arteries and brain.

Making haste to my high intensity training class where I would be required to squat as low as possible without tumbling head first into the wall, I reflected on the frightening absurdity of my previous conversation. Was our President possibly the greatest ogre in history because someone clearly able to take six mega-vacations in one year could have been forced to miss some overpriced salmon in the land of Hans Christian Andersen?

Or rather couldn’t the argument be made that those six pricey jaunts from the shores of France to the Caribbean required a fruit basket and a handwritten note forthwith to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for the 17,000+ Dow?

Throughout our suburban landscape, politics rear their left, right and libertarian heads in the stands, on the courts and on grocery and Starbucks lines. A cacophonous political debate that divides those split-level neighbors on every and any issue open to discussion and discourse. Getting the mail? It’s the nuclear agreement with Iran and Val-Pak. Shoveling the snow again? Let’s pile on our thoughts about climate change. Selecting a paint color? Hey, it’s all about choice.

The more I listen, the more I’m amazed that I live in an enclave of opinionated hyperbole and college-educated hysteria. Doesn’t matter what side of the street or aisle you sit on. There’s no middle in the middle of our suburban cul de sacs.

Republican friends argue vehemently against gun control while demanding greater fiscal control and controlling our borders. Forget that they were once stoned out of their heads on acid listening to Jeff Beck. Now it’s the world according to Glenn Beck and his chalkboard of xenophobic criticism. Forget the sixties. They are now approaching their ‘60s, and it’s time to lipo the fat from themselves and the federal government.

Democrats stand firm on unfettered abortion rights and the universal right to marry whomever you love wherever you want. But park too close to their overpriced car at Whole Foods and they turn into limousine liberals from hell. Forget the masses when there is overpriced fruit and vegetables on sale… picked by those illegal immigrants who you supposedly champion.

Both sides go at it at morning Pilates and during nighttime commutes home. On social media and at social events, storming off with a click or into their sports cars. And they back up every verbal volley (gleaned from their favorite pundits) as they trade backhands at weekly tennis.

Just tell someone on the other side you are supporting Hillary or Chris Christie (or Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, even Trump) and the proverbial gloves come off. It’s war (just not in Iran or Syria, please).

Hillary killed those people in Benghazi. What has she done in her career? She sold Israel under the bus. It will just be the Mr. Bill Show all over again!”

“Christie is a bully. New Jersey is in worse condition than ever. Have you heard of Bridgegate? And who needed Obama to bail him out when Hurricane Sandy hit?”

And while I am not surprised by the unbridled tenor and lack of timidity that enter our public discourse, I am baffled by the transformative and metamorphic evolution of my neighbors and friends. People who lost sight of the other side when they acquired their piece of the rock (or a big rock on their finger). I mean, how can you rail against the Affordable Care Act when Planned Parenthood was your main source of birth control during college?

Why can’t we love our neighbors even when our neighbors drone on about the use of drones in an MSNBC or Fox News trance? Why can’t we love our God’s little ½-acre without denying the climate is changing?

‘Cause what’s left when you always have to be right?

Cab Hat

When I first got my driver’s license many moons ago, I was ecstatic at the prospect of the open road. I could drive anywhere and everywhere I wanted (or as far as my gas money or my dad’s gas card would take me).

Errands for my mom? No problem. Pick up five friends and stuff them into the car? No problem. Midnight runs from college to Chinatown? Who doesn’t love beef chow fun at three o’clock in the morning?

When I moved to Manhattan, I still kept my car, moving it from side to side to avoid tickets or random break-ins. City or country, rain, sleet or snow, it was always time for a road trip to go apple picking or to pick up friends far and wide. What’s a potential fender bender when there’s a concert across state lines?

And then, I moved to the suburbs. Where you drive to your mailbox. Where you drive to the gym to walk on the treadmill. Where a cup of sugar is not next door but a ten-minute store trip. Where the miles on your car – and life – seem to fly by.

At first, tree-lined lanes and speed-hump streets seemed so quaint. Until you’ve gone over that hump morning, noon and night. To pick up the kids. To take them to school. To drop them off at soccer. To transport them from place to place, time and again.

“Dad, please pick me up at 5 from practice, then take Julie home. And then I need index cards from Staples. And may I get Panera for dinner? I love the Frontega Chicken.”

“Dad, after you pick me up on Main Street, will you drop me off at Lisa’s house, come back in about two hours and then we can go to the gym? By the way, can Deanna come to the gym with us? She’ll be waiting for us in her driveway.”

“Dad, I forgot my sweater at Lindsey’s house. Will you swing by and pick it up for me when you’re coming back from Home Depot? Also, mom’s making salmon. Any chance you can swing by Panera ‘cause you know I hate salmon? Love you, Daddy.”

Huh?

A perpetual state of vehicular motion… and that’s just one kid driving you nuts. Multiply that by two, three, four kids and you have parents waving to each other from different sides of the road. Forget intimacy. Forget the comforts of a comfortable couch. Mom and dad are road warriors, battling the elements and advancing age for passengers on the cusp of puberty.

I am proud to be a good dad… but when did I become Uber-dad? Was it a box I checked on my kid’s birth certificate? A lifetime agreement to be just a text away at any given moment? Always in overdrive, driving my kids left and right, north and south. Complimentary door-to-door service for teens in transit.

Uber-dad? More like Uber-schmuck. (Think positive… Uber-mensch.)

If music, information and conversation are always within their texting fingers, why not have dad and mom on livery speed dial? Instant gratification means dad can be there in an instant. Forget the conference calls… you can do those from the front seat of your car as you race toward school pick-up. It’s multitasking for the suburban multitudes.

And it’s my fault. I admit it. I brought my children up where sidewalks are few and far between. I wanted trees and grass, acreage and fresh air. An overpriced patchwork quilt in my little patch of heaven.

No more endless honking unless it’s geese flying south. Give me the open air and open road of roadside vegetable stands. But in running from city congestion, I ran straight to the gas pump. Filling up my hours by filling up the car.

I have led my children to believe every road starts and ends at home. No distance is too far, no excursion too exhausting. Weekend tournaments… a hop, skip and jump on the interstate. Friday-night movies? Parents can always watch their movie on Netflix.

It’s constant juggling… which parents are dropping off, and which parents are picking up. Instead of banter with life-long friends over sushi, you’re negotiating with someone’s parent about time and place. Dylan’s dad gets more of your time than your own dad.

And don’t get me started on those parents who take a virtual u-turn every time it’s their time to join the suburban motorcade. The ones who discretely drop their kids off in your driveway without a beep or a glance. Who steer clear of shepherding the local flock of kids so they make can haste to get wasted at some local wine bar.

“Haley’s mom isn’t able to drive.” “Haley’s dad is out-of-town.” “Haley’s nanny doesn’t work on Wednesdays.”

And why should they be available? Especially when Uber-daddy is on his way.

ManYelling_copy

“How was the fundraiser last night? A lot of people?”

“The usual suspects. You know, the elementary school schmooze at warp speed.”

“Get anything good at the silent auction? Last year, I bought a bunch of gift certificates.”

“I got two tickets to a concert. My buddy Jeff yelled at me for underbidding and told me to pay more so the school got more. I told him to go scratch. The school still gets the money. I mean, the items are donated, and I saved $100 on the tickets.”

“Damn straight. Jeff probably likes people to think he’s rolling in the dough. Anyway, do anything after?”

“Yep, went out to dinner. You’ll never guess with who… Mike and Lisa.”

“Mike? Lisa’s great but he’s a loose cannon. We once went out to dinner with him and he almost punched the valet. I couldn’t wait to get out of there!”

“I know. You never know which Mike you’ll get. Mike Myers… so funny. Or Mike Tyson… rage over the ravioli. All or nothing with that guy.”

Dinner with Mike. What was I thinking? A guy who can wrap you in a big bear hug the minute he sees you, or go all ape shit at the slightest provocation. Like a flip of a coin, it’s either heady conversation over a beer or you’re beating your tail out of there at breakneck speed (before he breaks up the place).

I don’t get it. We live on peaceful lanes (actually, there is a Peaceful Lane in my town) where we’re supposed to stop and smell the flowers. Why are there dads ready to get into brawl at every four-way stop? A simple “excuse me” from an unintended bump and they’re ready for a throwdown… and not the kind with Bobby Flay.

Picture rage among the rose bushes. Beautiful Saturday morning, and two guys are duking it out at the local Trader Joe’s over a parking spot… or possibly the last jar of organic honey. A dad screaming at the CVS counter over the price of a prescription. (Paxil, by any chance?) The occasional free-for-all of fisticuffs in a place where the freedom to be you and me rings with the school bell.

I’ve seen the 0-60 acceleration, especially with Mike. At his son’s four-year old birthday party, the pizza delivery man was late. Ten minutes late. As Mike and I talked, I saw the blood pressure start to rise along with the balloons decorating the table. As the driver approached, apologizing profusely for getting lost, Mike’s complexion went tomato-red in seconds.

A full jet stream of invectives bombarded the driver upon his sunny arrival. Mike hovered over him like a drone. The kid rock tunes were drowned out by Mike’s relentless barbs and insults. We all stood frozen, holding the hot slices of pizza.

And then within 90 seconds, it was over. The driver, visibly shaken, ran for cover under a towering elm tree and then off to his car. Mike, transformed, us, transfixed, returned to the party as the soothing sounds of our suburban jungle echoed through the trees. Welcome to Saturday-afternoon fights among the flora.

Why the rage… the rancor… the ripping apart of the fragile suburban patchwork of camaraderie and calm? I wonder… is it the pressure over the daily grind of keeping up, and paying out? The need to succeed to keep one step of the Joneses and Johnsons in cookie-cutter, Girl Scout cookie neighborhoods? Or just someone who’s going through the terrible 42’s?

Maybe it’s brought on by boyhood dreams lost among the weeds and 12-hour workdays. Fiduciary paradise gained, and something irrevocably, intrinsically lost. Being tied down to 30-year mortgages and long-term annuities until that last college tuition payment sets you free to wander (or hobble away on bad knees). Wanting to be responsible… respected… relaxed but bursting to break the rules of civility and courtesy.

Am I wary and judgmental of guys like Mike or a bit envious about their ability to blow the leaves off the trees that envelope us? Many of us mildly manage our lives among our manicured lawns, revealing nothing of our spring, summer, fall or winter discontent with the status quo. Just ripples of bubbling frustration as we hike along the brooks and streams that flow, like days into each other.

Should we? Could we? Would we be more like Mike if we gave ourselves the chance to throw conformity out with the Tuesday and Friday trash? A monthly pass to yell at someone for talking on the cellphone at the movies, or confront someone about parking in two spots? To scream from the back deck of your life “I’m mad as hell” even if no one but the squirrels are listening?

I ponder… but for now, instead of blowing up, I’ll keep blowing the leaves out of my garage. What’s ten more minutes of waiting when you’re enjoying your slice of suburban life?

Shawshank

“You look exhausted. Everything okay?”

“All good. Was up late last night. Didn’t get enough sleep.”

“Lucky you. We were both out cold by 10.”

“Not that. The game ended and I was about to turn off the TV when… you know… I flipped around, and it was on. Once it’s on, I have to watch it. I just have to watch it.”

“Man, I get you. It’s always Shawshank time. Morning, noon and night!”

Over the hedgerows, on the sidelines, in line at Starbucks, the suburban dads of America speak the language of love… love for Shawshank Redemption. We watch it, extol it, finding meaning in every frame. Solace, remorse and exultation all packed into one movie. It’s a national, inspirational epidemic inflicting men of a certain age, saddled with mortgage payments and fertilizer bags.

I am one of those men. From start to finish, I can’t turn it off. Walking out the door for a family dinner? I will stay and watch the last ten minutes ignoring the beeping horns and furious texts from my wife. Sweaty from the gym? I will sit on the edge of my bed hypnotized by Morgan Freeman’s soothing voice, letting the running shower steam up the entire second floor. Let the house fall down and crumble. I remain transfixed by each pebble silently falling from Tim Robbins’ pants.

And I am not alone. My fellow suburban brothers feel the joy of every word, and the pain of knowing we must watch every second, every time it shows up on cable. Somehow we identify with this man, Andy Dufresne, betrayed and wrongly accused, who outwits “the man” and ends up living the sweet life on the shores of the Pacific. He is our symbolic everyman, our man of the hour (actually, two hours and twenty-two minutes).

But why do see ourselves in him and Red? What’s in their stories that gives moral clarity to our own stories? It can’t just be the old good wins over evil, angel/devil allegory. Or a self-help primer offering homespun homilies about bad things happening to good people. Too simple, too rote. There’s something more under that rock than just money and a letter. What is it?

Could it be that we, middle-aged, middle-income men knee deep in the middle of the suburbs, also face a lifetime controlled by a system out of our own control? Trapped not behind iron bars but behind the inflexible picket fences of social conformity… and breadwinner-and-watering can rules? Ruled by the daily, monotonous routines that govern our days from sunrise to sunset?

Maybe, just maybe, it’s because many of us commit our lives to corporations where stagnant pay raises and managerial performance reviews determine our career paths, and lives. Traffic-snarled parkways and gravel driveways that watch us come and go, back and forth and back again. The unshackling only coming when we bash through the brick-and-mortar and leap toward self-employment. Or, more likely, when we take that early retirement package and run to the planned communities of sunshine and sunscreen.

Through Andy, we are set free. Like Andy, free to wade through the muck and mire, and come out refreshed and renewed. In Andy, able to use our wit and wiles to find subversive, subtle ways to cook the books in our favor. To take the money and run. Able to see the bigger picture beyond the wallpapered walls and gutter guards that define our existence.

I wonder, though, what would Andy’s life be like if his wife had not cheated… if he were not found guilty? He was a respected banker, a man ready to live his life in accordance with all we hold dear. Would he have been so resilient dealing with the corporate rat race? Would he have tapped into that steely inner strength while erecting a tree house or staining his deck? Would he be as big as life living a small-town existence?

Shawshank uplifts me… and unnerves me. I am fortified with every tap, tap, tap of the chisel offering freedom. I am buoyed by the blue waters lapping at the bare feet of Red and Andy. I am overcome with joy as Red opens that box and finds a path toward salvation.

But those final scenes also keep me up well past the end of the movie. Am I living my life in a manner dictated by the decisions of others, or of my own choosing? Have I faced what life has thrown my way and charted a course for myself, the ones I love, that has purpose and meaning? Is there a life beyond the manicured hedgerows of my life?

Maybe I just need to watch Shawshank again to figure it all out. Heck, it’s just a click away.

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