Posts Tagged ‘middle age’

A Useful Tool

December 14, 2019

So here I am on my fancy new iPad my sister gave me for my big Five-O. The last two iPads were victims of my Forgetful Forties—both sacrificed to the travel gods when placed hurriedly in airplane seat pockets while coordinating the family exodus.

The nice thing about a new device—and a new decade—is that it gives me a chance to both start fresh and look back. I always love when cognitive dissonance comes into play—it’s such a wonderfully human trait. After all, every person has an inalienable right to hypocrisy.

As far as starting fresh is concerned, my mid-century tech boost enables me to bid farewell to the literally dozens of failed blog posts, op/eds, and first chapters that litter my old PC. Indeed, I’m really hoping this missive doesn’t wind up in the same virtual dust heap as all those others—it will at least prove that something is different this time. For my 40s featured mostly a point/counter-point that started with some point, and countered with my realization that I really wasn’t making my point particularly well.

The 40s me simply hated the sound of my own voice.

Indeed, I recently made this point to my great college friends in life in a 50th birthday bash weekend in LA. 30 years after wandering as boys into Eagle Rock, California, Thom, Dan, and I rounded back to see the decay, gentrification, and renewal in both our old stomping ground and ourselves. To quote one of Thom and my favorite pop culture characters—FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper—such trips are invariably both, “wondrous and strange.”

Dan became a business and marketing expert, though his true profession is people, as it was even back in school. His interest in culture and his natural ease enabled him to build a career that for years took him hopping all over the globe, mostly in Asia. Even so, he and I always had a small pang of regret that we never tried our hand at following Occidental College legend Terry Gilliam in the art of satirical comedy.

Both caustic and quick, Dan and I found pleasure at pushing at pillars we thought needed toppling. Our most memorable campus moment came when we decided that the Oxy Glee Club’s annual Valentines Day foray—going into classes and serenading a student at a lover’s behest—needed a counter. Dan and I felt that it unfairly left out the angry and alone among us, and used our friend Thom as a willing rube to regale his class with a thrilling rendition of everyone’s favorite tune, “I Hate You, You Dirty Sonofabitch!”

Ah, the college comedy stylings of Dan & Scott…

Unlike we Python wannabes, our accomplice Thom did decide to make a career in comedy. He’s written and directed some fantastically funny short films, and with representation now seems on the verge of his long-deserved breakout moment. As we sat in the hotel drinking in every moment together (as well as some plain-old drinking), I gathered a bit of bravery to expose some of my vulnerability.

“So do you ever get frustrated with what you write?” I queried.

“Of course!” Thom responded. “Sometimes I just can’t find the right line, the right joke, and I’ll just put, ‘think of something funny here’ as a placeholder.”

I envied his ability to simply push on over that obstacle. But I selfishly wanted to get more to the heart of my own issue.

“But do you ever look down at the page, and just find yourself sick-and-tired of your own writing? Do you ever just dislike your own voice?”

Thom’s response was almost instantaneous, almost reflexive.

“Oh, that’s just ‘imposter syndrome.’ You can’t let that creep in.”

Our conversation moved on, but my thoughts dwelled on the apparent ease in which he was able to dismiss what for me as a writer is at my core. Indeed, even as I write this, I feel both verbose and whiny.

But my new iPad compels me forward.

So I will punch the keys.

I can see that for Thom, imposter syndrome might be the correct diagnosis for such a malady. But I’m not so sure that applies to me. Not everyone is a good writer—and there are many out there who think they have talent, but simply do not. Why can’t my poor self-review be honest, rather than simple self-loathing?

People who like you, love you, root for you are oft unflinching in their support; for your happiness is their happiness. That’s not selfish—at least not in a bad way. It’s human nature—a symbiotic circle of giving and reciprocity. And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make, as a fabulous set of four philosophers once crooned.

I understand this as a husband and father. My greatest moments of joy and satisfaction lie in knowing my family is thriving. My greatest fears are their struggles. My greatest failures are their failures. I have invested my entirety. And so it is only natural to want a return.

The same goes for my, “relentless optimism” as a coach. I simply do not have it in me not to invest in the kids I work with. To simply give them Xes and Os defeats the purpose of teaching the game. And while I’ve come to understand that my own style needs to change with both age group and the particular player, I cannot distance myself from every pitch, swing, and throw my players take. It’s probably not healthy, but it’s true.

But while I understand that selfish altruism (there’s fun with cognitive dissonance again!), the flip side of that comes with it the pressure to measure up. In my personal case, it’s the pressure that I think comes from everyone who wants you to see yourself as positively as they see you. If they think you are awesome, and you don’t think you are awesome, something surely must be wrong with you. It must be imposter syndrome. It must be depression. You must need therapy, Prozac, something so you can see what they see.

As a teen, my mother put me on anti-depressants, and everyone just loved how happy I was. But I didn’t feel like they were helping me. It felt more like they were replacing me. I felt like I was feeling someone else’s feelings. Like I was the me others wanted to see.

I stopped taking those medications, and some 35 years later with an incredible wife and two fantastic boys, I’ve never regretted the decision to be me; warts and all.

This is not to say I don’t think medication is a bad thing in itself for mental health. It is a crucial component for many and I don’t begrudge anyone that choice. But for me, it was a moment best captured by James T. Kirk in one of the fleeting moments of quality from the ill-fated Star Trek V. When the antagonist Sybok attempted to enlist him as a follower by releasing him from his greatest mental anguish, he refused, saying, “I want my pain. I need my pain!”

And here you thought you’d escape an arcane pop-culture reference. Wrong blog.

In my 20s, that pain was tempered with the endless, impetuous possibilities of youth.

In my 30s, that pain was put to use with empathy, passion, and love to build a family and career.

In my 40s, that pain overwhelmed me with the realization that the endless, impetuous possibilities of youth had given way to the understanding that inevitably comes to most—that I was not special. My mark would be local—not global. I was good at my job, but so would the person taking my job after me, and the next. That what I contributed might be of value, but it certainly wasn’t novel. Indeed, “Midlife Crisis” isn’t a stereotype for nothing.

Here in the infancy of my 50s, my pain has dulled into a sort of resignation—no—an understanding is perhaps the better term. I am loved and lucky. I have made an overall positive impact on the lives of the people closest to me, and of some others around me. I will never become a best-selling author or write the bill that changes the world. I understand now better than I ever did before that the more you learn, the less you truly know. But I see that what I have become still has its utility.

My pain and I are, at last, partners.

I am, finally, a useful tool.

And, at least right now, that is enough.

Sharing Our Nightmares – A Dad’s Trip Back to Twin Peaks

May 23, 2017

Twin Peaks

As a Dad and avowed pop-culture nerd, one of the great joys in my life is getting to share my geek passions with my boys.  I still remember when my little blondie and his oversized noggin’ toddled into my study while I was riding the exercise bike and watching a VHS copy of Star Wars.  One look at the mean man in the black mask was all it took.

Just a few days ago, that same fella, now six feet tall and his head quite proportionate to his muscular frame, grunted his way to the breakfast table.  It just so happened that Phantom Menace, arguably the second worst in the Saga, happened to be streaming live at the moment.  As he dumped cereal into bowl, I cast the movie onto the big screen.  And, like a spell, the big-headed little boy reemerged.  “Hey, Phantom Menace!” he bellowed, and I spotted a unicorn: the smile of a teen on a weekday morning.

Mornings with my younger son are dominated by our shared passion for that great American sociological experiment: Survivor.  If there’s not a new episode on, we pop on a previous season and guess whether the player with apparent control is building the right “resume” or whether a premature blindside might spell her doom.  He is counting the days until he can send in his own video, proudly proclaiming that his negligible appetite will give him the leg up on the “Alpha Males” who can’t handle the lack of food.

But whether it is a Galaxy Far, Far Away, or a deserted island, or even a world of pure imagination, sharing those moments is like sharing a dream.  It floats happily on top of real life, bonding us together in a heady place of love and joy.

But there is another place.

Someplace dark and unsettling.

In that place—that land of nightmares—the sharing transports a relationship elsewhere.

And, it is happening again.

It is happening, again.

I remember coming home from college in 1990 and my mother in her latest attempt to have me meet a nice Jewish girl got me an invite to a friend’s daughter’s house.  She and a group of friends were obsessed with a brand-new show and were going to watch the premiere episode for the eleventeenth time.

I hardly remember the girl—I’m sure she was very nice and I very much hope she’s led a wonderful and happy life.  But my introduction to Donna, Shelly, Audrey, and a dead girl wrapped in plastic is something I will never forget.

Like so many others of the day, the small-town terror of Twin Peaks held me in its grasp.  And the fact that one of my three touchstone heroes (the other two being James T. Kirk and Willie Wonka—Wilder, not Depp) departed the pop-culture coil having been possessed by the evil he had chased since the pilot burnt a hole in my nerdy soul.

As many of my friends will tell you, the show has held a disturbingly large part of my imagination ever since.  Indeed, my Halloween 1999 costume of a psycho with long, gray hair, a jeans jacket, and white surgical gloves talking about catching folks with my “death bag” sure scared the hell out of the neighborhood trick-or-treaters, even though no one knew who the hell I was.

But I knew.

Before rumors of The Return began to circulate, I sat my bored teen in front of the TV and asked him to give a piece of vintage television a chance.  “This isn’t like The Chocolate War, is it Dad?” he groused, having found what I find to this day to be one of the most underrated teen dramas to be a dreary and dreadful bore.  I assured him it was like nothing he’d ever seen.  He was skeptical, but willing to give an episode a try.

“What the hell was that?”

His words as the (red) curtain closed on the pilot.

“So, did you like it?” I replied, unsure whether the little piece of my soul I shared found a place in his.

“Yeah, I think so.”

“Another?”

“Yes, please.”

And I dove once again over that dark and alluring waterfall into Twin Peaks, this time with my own boy along for the swim.  I listened to his theories.  We compared crushes.  We eye-rolled as Billy Zane tucked his sweater inside his pants and stole Audrey away from Coop.  But mostly, I got to experience the terror, wonder, and ultimate bewilderment as our hero ended his journey—apparently forever—staring at a bloody mirror with the face of evil starting back at him through a fresh set of eyes.

“How’s Annie?”

That line, and many others, have entered into our daily lexicon.  Because as much as the shared dream bonds, the shared nightmare binds.  For that darker place is more primal, more personal; a shared peek under the bed to find that, yes, there be monsters.

And now, by some Lynchian twist, the ending that has haunted me for a generation’s time has a new beginning.  And this journey with my son has a whole new feeling.  For our first trip to Twin Peaks was very much one of Father and Son.  I had the knowledge, and lived the new vicariously through my boy’s indoctrination.  But now, as an older Giant and older Cooper began this new chapter, we were on a level playing field.  The “Oh, F—k” that launched from his lips so many times with another twist of the proverbial (and occasionally literal) knife are now leaping from me as everything old becomes new.

And so as a parent—and a nerd—it is my nightmares that are truly a dream come true.

Home Run on the Edge of Forever

May 11, 2017

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He’s a strong kid, my big fella.  He was a contender for Varsity this year as a 10th Grader, but ended up on JV.  It was the classic dilemma for a baseball parent, not sure if being on the Big Club and mostly sitting would be better than being the Big Fish.

I’m voting for Big Fish as of now.

I sat in the stands a couple of nights back watching my boy’s team competing against a team they weren’t supposed to beat.  Indeed, this was a season they weren’t supposed to be competitive because they lost too much underclass talent to Varsity.  But Gus’s Generals came up with the W.

And Gus went deep.

My wife missed the point of contact, as her eyes were focused down on the mound of green billing papers she had brought to the field in her eternal battle to stay true to her profession and her passion.  But she didn’t need to see it, as it made that sound.  That clean, slightly high-pitched and distinctively loud PING! that means the ball has been struck just slightly better than perfect.

The home run itself is something quite unique.  The power and precision.  The ability to do something that is truly indefensible.  And to see the ball go over the wall at the High School level is something of a Unicorn.   Gus’s was just the 4th Home Run of the whole W-L season—JV and Varsity combined.  Gus was the one-and-only on his team.  Indeed it was the only one we saw from any team the entire season including from the Big, Bad, Madison team with its JV squad full of Juniors.

So as that drive rose, it took us all a little by shock.  Gus’s Mor-Mor was on hand and seemed entirely bewildered.  The confusion from everyone seated behind the plate was compounded because backstop obstructed the flight of the ball.

The left fielder slowed down, and turned to watch.

Did that really just happen?

It did.

Gravity ceased to have meaning on the field as my boy floated ‘round the bases.  He promptly crashed into a sea of navy and gray as his coach attempted to manage the balance between legitimate celebration and showing up the opposition.

In the stands, however, I can attest that gravitational laws were still in full effect, as I leaped and clamored thunderously on the bird-stained metal bleachers.  The joy of the moment was overwhelming, to be there to see my son do something he will always remember.  To think about all that went into that single swing.

The Chocolate Donutz-eating t-ball team;

The pudgy 2nd baseman with a decent bat taking the 3rd Grade house championship;

The B-Team catcher starting to find his form;

Dealing with A-Team rejection, concussion, and the monster of self-doubt;

The cup-of-coffee with the A-Team in the 12u wood bat tournament finally proving he could play with the best;

Moving to the big field and back to B-Team;

Working his keester off and moving up to A;

More rejection as an 8th Grader as he gets cut from JV;

More frustration in 9th as he struggles to catch up to High School pitching;

Determination to improve as he dives into training to become bigger, stronger, faster, and better;

Getting into a groove as a Sophomore, only to be sidelined by injury;

Feeling his way back after missing two weeks; and

BOOM

The bat sang, and a Dad swelled.  No, more just a Dad.  At that moment, I was every proud Dad.

Wait, no, that’s quite not it.

Oh.

Oh my lord.

I was my Dad.

Divorce and distance had kept him from seeing me play for the most part.  But one spring day he had made his way down from Queens to Atlanta, and sat beside my teenage sister as my Northside Youth Organization Phillies were taking on the A’s.  I had just explained to my teammate that my bat with the grip tape dangling loosely from the top of the handle, “really isn’t a home run bat.”

And then…PING!

That feeling of perfect nothingness when a ball connects just right.  And the ball sailed over the left-centerfield fence.

My memories are watching the ball leave, getting mobbed by my teammates, and the booming sound of a slightly-overweight, middle-aged guy leaping awkwardly on the aluminum bleachers.

And now that memory and this circle each other, making the past feel present, and knowing that this moment will live past me in the stories Gus will, if he is so lucky, tell to his children.  For in the words of the prophet Terrence Mann:

The one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.

This field, this game, this moment(s) in time was good.

And I remember that it always will be.

Coaches Matter

January 9, 2017
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courtesy T.J. Arrowsmith

There were times last year as 4-year-olds battered me with pool noodles that I pulled a “Murtaugh.”  You might remember his as Danny Glover’s curmudgeonly cop in the Lethal Weapon movies of the 90’s.

His signature line?

I’m getting too old for this shit.

Particularly in my “solo” classes, where it was I alone acting as the ringmaster of the preschool circus, at class’ end, I would feel more than weathered, I’d feel withered.  Coaching for me has always had a tinge of fear.  I walk in with a game plan, but am always terribly afraid that it will be a disaster.  The kids will leave having learned nothing, and the nutty coach will have turned them off to baseball forever because it’s as stupid and boring as he is.

That fear has been compounded by a sense of the frivolity of my endeavor.  I put aside my writing to invest in being a coach.  Writing was why I left my very worthwhile job at the Union of Concerned Scientists—a job I believe I was good at, and helped to make a difference.  And now, I’m a 47-year-old man running around with an orange hand puppet and telling kids to run through the bag a first.

What the hell am I doing?

And so I decided this year to scale back.  I’d do some private coaching, but turn back to my writing, something that I believe can make an impact, and perhaps is a bit more age and career appropriate for a middle-aged, Middle East history major.  And I’d save a load of cash not re-upping my insurance, to boot.

And then over the weekend, I received this message:

Coach N,

I’ve emailed you a couple of times since our son took your class in 2013 or 2014, but I just wanted to thank you again and let you know what an impact your enrichment continues to have on him.  My husband and I were just talking about it today, how your class helped him learn how to throw and catch, and gave him the confidence to play with other kids that extended to general self esteem.  We have since discovered that he has some learning disabilities that make tasks that may be intuitive to others, very difficult for him. He needs to be instructed on things that come easily to most kids, and playing catch is one example.  You broke throwing and catching down into easy steps in a manner that he could understand.  I can’t tell you enough how much of a positive impact your enrichment had on him.  He now has no problem jumping in to any game of catch, whereas prior to your class a game of catch would typically result in tears and self-deprecating comments. 

In an area that has so many high-achieving kids and parents, it can be really discouraging for parents of a child with learning differences when it feels like everyone else’s kid is on travel everything.  Thank you so much for providing a fun, supportive, non-competitive opportunity for kids to learn how to be like other kids.  Your impact as a coach will stay with him and our family forever.

Maybe I am not solving global warming.  And my books haven’t hit the shelves just yet.  But this message reminded an old coach of young children just what a simple game of catch can mean to a kid, and to a family.  How while we rightly focus on the way we educate our kids in school, there is a real and enduring value in finding the right ways to teach our kids to play.

I just paid for my insurance today.  Come spring, a dozen preschoolers will be pelting me with their Super Hero throws.  I may indeed be too old for this shit, but I am a coach.

And coaches matter.