easier to stay away

When I moved to North Carolina, there was no way I was going to stay. I’d finish college and return to Western New York – which would always be home.

These intentions were only solidified after two years in the Tarheel State. I hated it there. Hated the culture, hated the weather, hated the “wussy” things people did for fun. Oh, and Southern cuisine wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Fried food sucked, college football sucked, golf sucked, vanity license plates sucked … everything just, well, sucked.

But here I am, more than 10 years after graduating college. I’m even further from Western New York.

I WILL NEVER FORGET those all-night drives to New York while in college. I hated flying because it lacked the thrill that came from witnessing everything get better the farther north I traveled. Virginia felt more like home than North Carolina. West Virginia felt more like home than Virginia. Maryland, then Pennsylvania … and finally, New York.

One such night in college came as a surprise to my parents. I arrived in the middle of the night and the dog pissed all over the driveway when it saw it was his long lost running buddy who’d just got out of the car. Mom and Dad turned on their bedroom lamp, shot out of bed – confused at first before finally erupting into smiles. They actually got up and had a cup of coffee with me before we all went to sleep.

The rest of my family would see me always before I went back to the South and every old friend I had time to see would drink at least two beers with me (the closest ended up consuming much more than that). And the food – luscious, giant slabs of beer battered fish on Friday nights, pizza, REAL chicken wings, red meat galore, great Polish cuisine, above average Italian cuisine – it was always good to eat food the way it was supposed to be eaten.

THOSE TRIPS ARE FAR and few between today, though. Nothing is wrong with the place. Nothing has changed … literally. My family and friends who remain in the area, I miss dearly. The food is still great.

But you don’t have to watch out for fire ants when you’re barefoot in March. They don’t have old men who will hold you up for three to 27 minutes as you’re walking into a store because they thought you looked like someone they knew 20 years ago. They don’t have jasmine. Crepe myrtles aren’t in every third front yard. There aren’t signs in front of houses selling unshelled pecans for $5 per quart-size Ziploc bag. They don’t have magnolia. And they don’t have the sweet nectar of a trumpet honeysuckle.

I did not like North Carolina because in one case, I lived in a coastal city (I did not realize I hate the beach so much until I moved there), I was bogged down by a new career in another NC city and I was too focused on recently becoming a single parent to a 2-year-old girl in the third city to bask in its glory.

That third city in NC … it almost had me. Kinston was its name and I reflect on it presently with adoration. I lived with my daughter in a small cottage I rented surrounded by cotton fields. I remember in the fall, mice seemed like they were everywhere inside the house, so when I reported this to my landlord – an old, small-in-stature-but-large-in-personality Southern woman who always wore an apron, whose house always smelled like fried food and always had tea brewing on the stove – just said, “Well, they ain’t too bad this year.”

“This year?” I said. She made it sound like snowfall in Western New York.

“Oh, yeah,” she calmly replied. “When those boys start ta harvesting the cotton, them mice coming running out of the fields and into people’s houses.”

She gave me a stack of those paper mouse traps with one side that was all super-strength adhesive. She told me to just put these in cupboards, corners, along baseboards.

“When one gets stuck, you’ll hear it scream and scream ‘cuz it can’t get off,” she said with an evil laugh. “Then you just roll it up, take it outside and squeeze it real hard until you hear it crack, then they stop.

“Then just throw it in the trash so you don’t get blood everywhere.”

This was a different flavor of where I was from, but resembled its simplicity and strength. People just did what they had to do to live their lives.

I liked Kinston.

LIFE EVENTUALLY TOOK me to South Carolina, though. By then, I was more acclimated to the South and prepared for a version of North Carolina that was even less progressive. I’d advanced beyond critiquing locals’ treatment of black people (since much of the North still views the South as Ku Klux Klan sympathizers) as I learned if either side needs a lesson in tolerance, it’s the place I’m from. I no longer felt as if I were on a constant journey to gather information to take home when I left the South. On top of that, the Carolinas was where my daughter was from … it is her home, so it might as well be mine, I thought.

Not that it took much convincing.

South Carolina sealed the deal for me. It was all the good things about North Carolina without the vanity license plates on SUVs. I saw few plots of forest giving way to million-dollar homes creating neighborhoods with names like “Landfall” and “Trent Woods.” I saw more farmland that was always going to be farmland because it’d be a cold day in Hell before the old timers allowed the nephew of a guy they went to school with vote in favor of a land development at a county council meeting.

Even the cities were more my speed. I actually – on a rare occasion, but it happens, nonetheless – take my children, today, to visit cities in South Carolina. If I wanted to carry a loaded handgun in my glove box without some government paperwork, I could. I learned to appreciate the food because it wasn’t like anyplace else. I loved the privacy offered in South Carolina … folks would try to get to know you when you move somewhere or start a job, but once you made it clear you’d rather they did not, they’d leave you alone. Of course, they’d circle back to quiet stabs at getting you to their church, but even this was not aggressive.

I REALIZED ALL of this when discussing what our family would do for upcoming spring break. It hasn’t been unusual to use this time for a Western New York trip, but we did not do that last year and I don’t anticipate it happening this year. There’s just too much interesting nothing going on here to leave for a week. The sun is out every day. Flowers have been coming up for a month and I’ve already cut grass three times. My daughter is talking about everything she wants to plant in the garden and my son, who is 3, considers every weekend a major holiday because he gets to run around our fields, swing from tree limbs, slide for hours from his wooden swing set, cut trails through wildflowers in a trailer behind the tractor and “help” me in the shop, fixing little things around the house that may or may not actually need fixed.

The most resistance I anticipate to my proposal we stay home for spring break will come from Hollie, who is – interestingly enough – a Georgia native. She’s visited Western New York twice with me since we met and loves the place. Maybe we can compromise with a couple of days at the beach (which would be a compromise because – remember – I loathe any beach and the freaks who go there).

So this is the evolution of my definition of home. I think WNY will always be dear to me and conjure a host of memories, but my heart will forever be in the place I’ve found that is both vacation and home.

Yes, I believe my life has finally become a vacation. I have no desire to leave this place. Above all else, it is home.

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Among the fears

Among the fears I have for my son, one of the greatest is that he’ll limit himself to gender stereotypes.

I DO NOT WORRY about this with my daughter. She spent the majority of the years in which these are traditionally ingrained being raised by her father alone; she was by default exposed to everything I do that are considered, today, “man” things. My concerns with her revolve around typical ambition issues of a 12-year-old who thinks she is a 22-year-old heir to a wealthy throne. She may not do the things she’s learned, but she knows how to do them.

Maybe it’s the times and what’s going on in the world today; it could be part of me has bought into the latest wave of women’s suffrage movements, but I really don’t want my son to buy into this whole “men don’t do that” thing when it comes to behaviors and activities. I don’t want him believing men aren’t supposed to clean, cry, bake, sew, do laundry or be “overly” tender.

I SEE ON FACEBOOK all of the time fathers who clearly buy into traditional stereotypes and are well on their way to passing them onto their sons. I have no interest in judging them because, truthfully, my son is the only son who’s my responsibility. But just as I’ll be sure to post photos of Kalob’s hunting expeditions down the road, I’m also going to share photos of him baking cookies with me.

That’s right. I bake cookies.

My mother, a year or so ago, bought Kalob a simple baby doll with a toy bottle when he stayed overnight at my parents’ house. I remember her hesitation discussing the purchase when I picked him up. She was almost defensive when I saw it, seemingly convinced I was going to have a problem with it.

“Now Justin,” she said, “there’s nothing wrong with giving a little boy something to nurture and feel like he’s taking care of.”

If I had an expression on my face that reflected my feelings at all, it was more “that’s actually a great idea” than anything. Perhaps she misinterpreted this.

While his doll has accepted a role similar to the multitude of stuffed animals he’s lost interest in over time, he is still drawn to the thing when it pops up from out of a pile somewhere … nurturing, embracing and holding it just as he was the day I first saw him with it.

I BEGAN THINKING ABOUT these things tonight, as I sewed shut a tear in a small stuffed cow that was left in the yard and fell victim to our young, chewing dog. It is one of the few stuffed toys Kalob consistently loves. It cannot die at this time.

 

And while it looks like it was repaired by an EMT treating a victim in a bumpy ambulance on the way to the hospital, it gets the job done. My eighth-grade home economics class has finally paid dividends.

I believe it would be a disservice to my boy if I did not teach him things traditionally reserved for women. It would be a disservice to his future partner. It would be a disservice to society in general.

The world is full of tasks that require delicate hands – male or female.

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A milestone I don’t like to like

When Hollie goes to work early, I am the one who gets Kalob dressed and off to daycare in the morning. Today was one of those mornings.

Since he is 3, our routine for getting out the door is mostly his routine. All I am able to do to ready myself is put on my clothes, brush my teeth and arrange the dozen remaining hairs on my head with my fingers so I don’t look like a scumbag. The rest of my time in the morning is spent chasing Kalob, putting his clothes on, feeding him, wiping up his messes, putting away toys, etc., etc., etc.

I envy people whose routine consists of getting out of bed, eating, drinking coffee, dressing, freshening, hitting the road.

I HAD AN AWFUL REALIZATION this morning, though. One part of Kalob’s routine we no longer must do is put on a diaper or pull-up. He is about 75 percent potty-trained now, so the only time he wears a pull-up is when he goes to bed. It’s been a long battle to break this stubborn child of peeing whenever his bladder is full.

If anything, he’s running behind on the potty-training game. The daycare is set up so in his next classroom – the 3-year-old class, which he should have been in last month – there is no diaper or pull-up changing. But it’s pretty obvious Kalob is just being difficult here. He simply refuses to sit on the toilet the same way he refuses to put on his shoes in the morning, put his toys away and eat foods when he is told.

Yes, we have one of those kids who knows what he is supposed to do but won’t do it purely because he was told to do it.

I REMEMBER YEARNING for the day we no longer had to spend small fortunes on pull-ups. I remember hoping there would come a day we no longer had to change him because the novelty had worn off long ago and now it was just another task that required dropping everything to do. I remember seeing other children his age and younger wearing underwear and thinking, “Well, here’s Kalob … still rocking the pull-up.”

Now that the day has arrived, I’m a little bummed out.

Yet another part of the baby whose photos adorn the house walls is gone forever. No more bald head, no more eyelid that only works half the time, no more pacifier, no more crying in the night, no more “changing the baby.”

IT’S JUST HOW IT goes, though. Truly. I never realized these things with my daughter because she was my first. Now I’m really noticing them with Kalob. Once they are gone, they’re never coming back. Sort of like my hair.

Parents are lucky, though, to feel these feelings. To be so sad over happy things. In a demented way, this is the upside to being exhausted, overwhelmed and even feeling suffocated at times as you envy people who can just get up in the morning and go straight to work.

It is a milestone and an achievement. As difficult as it may be, I will try to be glad about it.

After all, I yearned for this day.IMG_4511 (2)

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Thoughts and Prayers

Sadly, there are cliches that have developed when it comes to school shootings.

(This is sad because school shootings should be so infrequent that each is remembered as a historic tragedy, like the Challenger space shuttle explosion, but just the opposite is true.)

First, people will call for thoughts and prayers. Then Facebook will develop a border for profile pictures that say something to the effect of “praying for (insert name of school that was recently attacked).”

Then the gun control people will start. They’ll be joined by the “we need help for mental illness victims” gang.

Next will be the “it’s too soon to talk about gun control” and “it’s disrespectful to the victims to make this political” crowds.

Right about this time is when the government starts discussing responses to the matter. Six months after that, some bill aimed at reducing the chance of another school shooting will be laid to rest … and we’ll all be back to square one.

But the one that happened in Florida today has triggered an entirely new response I’ve seen multiple times on social media: the mockery of the “thoughts and prayers” response. Yeah, I get the point. They believe we need to do more than pray, specifically at the legislative level. They want laws passed, etc., etc.

(I mock the idea of more laws helping anything, truth be told.)

 

It is true there is no way to stop a well-armed school shooter who has knowledge of the building layout and procedures school staff and students have rehearsed. Technology exists to help the building occupants’ chances, but school districts don’t have the money for these kinds of purchases. Arming teachers is a joke, too. A person has to have many hours of experience handling, using and embracing a handgun to be comfortable enough with it to respond swiftly and safely under pressure. A lot of people think they’d turn into a special agent for the FBI in the event of a bank robbery or if they came across someone getting mugged in the parking lot, but it’s easier said than done. Some weekend seminar on firearm safety isn’t going to be enough for the vast majority of teachers.

So don’t attack those who view thoughts and prayers as all they can really do about it.

We should never, ever stop praying in times like these. Seriously. No, I’m not the formally religious type. I don’t even know what religion to call my family and actually dislike the institution of church. But I will tell you what the lot of us has: faith. It may not be as strong as it should or could be, but there’s at least a little flicker of a flame somewhere inside. While it seems at times God is not by our children at school each day, protecting them and keeping them safe, He is. He must be. We have to believe this or we have nothing at all left on days like today.

My middle school-age daughter asked me tonight while watching coverage of this shooting if I thought her school was safe. I told her she’s at greater risk for mesothelioma (her school district was recently given an F on some report card for building maintenance) than she is being shot. And this is true.

So tomorrow, I will watch her get on the bus in the morning like she always does and know she will come home safely. I will give my son a hug and kiss goodbye as I leave him off inside his daycare classroom. I will be aware of Earthly threats, but confident God will provide the protection necessary and wisdom to teachers and administrators to respond should a threat arise.

hope we citizens – public and private – come up with a way to reduce the number of tragedies that are occurring in our schools, but I know God controls everything that will happen throughout the course of my children’s day, their mother’s and mine.

I can’t directly move a nation to action, but I can pray. I can keep people in my thoughts. This is something I can do. God listens.

And I will never stop doing this, no matter how ineffective it may seem to some or hopeless it feels to me at timesBBJ8X5S.

 

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Three

When people who do not have children think about having children, oftentimes money is near the top of the list of reasons they do not have children.

Money is also a man or woman’s No. 1 fear when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. It’s even a concern when a happily married couple begins planning to have a child. This group may not worry about additional mouths to feed affecting day-to-day operations, such as paying bills and buying groceries, but substantial thought goes into “capital requests” down the road, including paying for college, a wedding, etc.

I AM GUILTY of this. I did not plan to have my daughter and certainly never thought I’d raise her on my own for so long. Back then, I was fresh out of college with a pretty much worthless bachelor’s degree. I worried too much about finances not enough about what she really wanted: my time. Now it’s too late. The opportunity to read more with her, paint her nails more and teach her how to use the kitchen set I bought her at Christmas one year are gone.

But, hey … at least she’ll be good for college and never had to worry about having food, right?

MY SECOND CHILD turned 3 last week. We had his party this weekend. I look at his sister, the myriad of complex 12-year-old girl emotions, interpretations and motivations she is and yearn for her to be like her brother: a little kid who doesn’t want to do anything without me or his mother. Having learned my lesson, I spend as much time interacting with him as possible.

It’s easy to consider my circumstances have changed since his sister was his age and presume that’s why money doesn’t matter to me as much. I’m no longer a single parent. My income has increased substantially since I was entry level plus his mother works very hard to provide financial needs (and wants) of the household. My job permits me a schedule that maximizes the amount of time I get just to be with my children.

While these two factors are helpful, time is what your small children want … not your money.

SO I SPEND LESS time worrying about Kalob’s college tuition (he’s 3 for God’s sake) and more time teaching him how to use his new Leap Pad interactive learning book. I turn down opportunities for bonuses at work if they require me to be away from my children. I even rejected a promotion that would have increased my salary by 50 percent because it would have been almost completely travel. While this one was tempting because of the money and because I really would have liked the assignment, it’s not like we needed any more money.

I would not have been benefiting my family at all by taking me away from them. Trading my role as a regular, constant fixture in their lives for occasional lavish trips to Disney World and foreign countries would not have been okay. 

I CELEBRATE MY son, my daughter and my Hollie in this post and the role they have played in teaching me about what matters. Those happily married couples waiting for financial reasons to have children should stop waiting, as the younger they are, the more energy they will have to give time to their children. Those like I once was – terrified having a child was going to make me destitute – should realize having a child only makes one richer.

People nearing death don’t think about ways they could make more money. They think about ways to maximize the time they have left with those they love.    

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Emerald eyes

I see you when I close my eyes and I don’t like it.

It’s uncomfortable. Awkward. Alarming.

I should do something, but I’m tired of doing something. I choose to do nothing. It’s better for everyone in the world except you leave you to your own self-inflicted suffering … to wallow in the puss from the wound you’ve created and has become your life.

I want to help, but I can’t.

You were not always like this. I used to look into your eyes and see their emerald tone. Now I can’t look into your eyes without seeing your struggle. I only glance at them; I look away quickly, awkwardly and ashamed of what you’ve become … not because you’ve become this sorrow, but because I never tried to stop it.

I feel like things would have been different had we spent more time together. But we didn’t. I left, you roamed. You latched onto vagabonds, thieves and undesirables. Eventually, you learned their ways until they became a part of you … until you became them. 

There are strands of flowers in fields that grow after the hay is cut in the fall, before more hay tries to grow until after winter has passed. I gaze at them and think of you. They stand proudly, only swaying in the wind and not succumbing to it. They reach for the sun. They savor each drop of rain. They are color amid gray, but not without a fight.

Even the deer leave these flowers alone, out of distaste or respect. They instead eat what remains of pecans on the ground and remnants of persimmons from late summer. Be it by choice or default, these flowers escape the wrath of these animals.

Why can’t you be a flower in the field?

I know we will meet again someday and for that I am grateful. You will be better and I will be too – you without your sadness and me without mine. You with excitement for tomorrow. Your enchantment. Your delight. Your hope. Me with my happiness to see you again the way you were when we were kids.

The house in which I grew up was sold by my parents. I never want to see it again. I never want to go through there. I want it forever in my mind the way it was the day I left – the way it was when we were kids. 

I do not like what you have become more than I dislike what I have become. Sometimes, I am callous. I am callous when it comes to you. I am callous when I ask myself to be, but my soul would have me be otherwise. I do not listen to my soul when it tells me to be empathetic. I do not like myself when I do not listen to my soul.

And I find a way to blame you for conjuring this filth inside of me. I do not know where you’ve been, but I know where you are. I cannot make you escape. I cannot support you to freedom. I cannot pity you back to your emerald eyes.

I cannot make these demons go away; I will not try. For that, I have a blackness in my heart. For that, I do not know who to blame.

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Authoritative leadership doesn’t work anymore

When I accepted my current job, it was to fill a void left by a manager who was no longer effective.

The days that followed were filled with stories of him hollering at people, threatening, belittling and basically just being a bully. I was pegged for his replacement because I interviewed to be his polar opposite.

BACK IN THE day, bosses could get away with throwing their weight around, scaring people into submission and using the “you will do this because I am your boss and I told you to do it” tactic. A boss who “doesn’t put up with shit” was desired by companies.

However, be it a generational shift or result of in-depth social studies on work places, it has been discovered “not putting up with shit” isn’t good enough. In fact, to some degree, it’s a bad thing.

Turns out the best leaders are those who get the best out of people instead of those who inspire people to do just enough to keep their jobs.

Authoritarian leaders are on the way out.

WE FIND OURSELVES amid this transition when it comes to leadership in our country. We have a president who prides himself on being this old school boss, not “putting up with shit” from anyone. This sounds good to some, but is even worse than ineffective to others … it is counterproductive.

For instance, we saw this last week with the government shutdown. We see it every time our president tries to get legislation passed or reform an institution installed prior to his tenure. It’s a struggle … a bad struggle where people actually put so much effort into fighting him that they have no effort left put into being the leaders they were elected to be.

While the president may have sound ideas that might work if put in motion, they will never take off simply because of the “you will do this because I am your boss and I told you to do it” approach.

He will ultimately always be ineffective – and always blame others for this ineffectiveness.

THE BOSS I REPLACED had his direct reports’ attention at first. He did scare them into doing the things he told them to do. They were even covering for him when he was not present but should have been.

But eventually, it became too much and the whistle blowing began – slightly, at first, but loudly before it was over. They were tired of being talked down to. They were sick of not being appreciated, recognized or encouraged. Not one wanted to be a worker bee anymore for a “queen” only in it for herself.

So which is better? On one hand, the less authoritarian and more authoritative is preferred by many direct reports. This is the person who sets high goals, but also offers the tools and support necessary to meet them. Positive reinforcement plays a big role. But on the other hands, some direct reports will always interpret the authoritative leader as a friend and ultimately a pushover … which generally does not happen with an authoritarian leader.

The answer to this is in recent history, with our president. He may be full of wonderful ideas and schemes, but until he stops being a dictator in a democratic society, he will not accomplish anything.

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