Rediscovery

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For the past 15 months, my daughter and I have rarely left our home except for safely-choreographed and masked walks in the neighborhood or a nearby park.

As life moves closer every day toward a remembrance of things past, especially in Hawaii, we have been slowly reemerging.

We are very lucky that my husband and my daughter’s other father (no ranking for first or second!) has been out in the world while I have worked from home and our 11-year-old poet has completed fifth grade through distance learning. Let me rephrase that: she aced fifth grade through distance learning, discipline, and a little more attention that I was able to give her since the pandemic began.

This past week we set foot on her school campus that is now her alma mater for only the second time since the pandemic began. We briefly walked around as the grounds were being prepared for summer school and were greeted by teachers, both of whom noted how tall our daughter had grown. It was an easy farewell for the time being as we navigate next steps toward finding the right middle school.

On our way home, I mentioned stopping by a little park with a small, stone amphitheater that is off the beaten track in the middle of Honolulu. We decided to forego revisiting that site for the time being. Going back to one place after waiting patiently was enough for one afternoon.

Our own home, which we purchased during the pandemic and which we hope to never leave, is in a different part of town. After moving to Hawaii seven years ago and working in the same high school as my husband, I changed jobs last October. I now work for a youth orchestra.

And I am thoroughly enjoying the changes while rediscovering parts of my life that have never left me even if they have escaped to some state of hibernation: writing poems that have needed to be written, becoming a more engaged parent, and amphitheaters, sort of!

The last time I played the bassoon in an amphitheater was many years ago, but it was quite the grand finale, or so I thought at the time. I had played in bands or orchestras for nearly a decade by the time I was making college plans. My bassoon teacher, a kind, wonderful, talented man told me when I was 17 that if I worked very hard, I could probably earn a living as a member of a small city orchestra and by playing at lots of weddings and other events. I had grander dreams. I was going to be a writer for Sports Illustrated or full-time journalist somewhere. My last actual performance was in a gorgeous amphitheater at a summer artists colony. To my astonishment, I was first chair. A young man, far more talented, should have been, but the conductor told me he liked my maturity! He even had all the first chairs stand and receive applause after my last concert. I knew I was leaving the bassoon on a high note!

Except I never really could get the bassoon out of my mind. Every time I heard one anywhere, I yearned. I never did become a writer for Sports Illustrated although I wrote tennis articles and my writing skills have served me well throughout my career. A few years before fatherhood, I invested some of my savings in a beautiful bassoon. My husband and I moved to New Hampshire so we could be legally married before our child was born. He received a professorship in Germany, and I stayed behind waiting for our daughter to come into the world. I started taking bassoon lessons for the first time in decades. Then I found out our daughter would have an extra chromosome the rest of her life. I stopped playing.

Extra chromosome or not, she is glorious! As a family, we lived in Germany and then Iowa before moving to Hawaii. I never lost the tiny piece of scrap paper with the telephone number of my bassoon teacher from New Hampshire. Somehow, it survived 11 years! For the past five weeks I have taken lessons again with my teacher over Zoom. The six-hour time difference is fine. What’s even better is the joy of rediscovery. Today I played an F major scale. The notes I have relearned increased to 11! Being able to play again a G note in the bass clef, holding it for four beats, even adding a little vibrato, is my version of stepping back into heaven, of finding a friend I could never forget.

I now am practicing from a book I found somewhere in our new home. Until I opened it today, I hadn’t realized it was purchased by my first teacher way back when, the kind, patient, inspiring gentleman who by some miracle is still helping me become a better musician.

Overcoming my Inner Pig Dog!

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Leave it to the Germans to come up with exactly the right description for what I have been feeling in my personal life: a great expression for inertia!

Lately will ich meinen inneren Schweinehund ├╝berwinden! Yes this German / Scottish-American hopes to actually conquer his inner pig dog instead of just sitting on the comfy sofa and dreaming about it!

As I watched Serena and Venus Williams at the French Open, I kept thinking, “Here are two of the greatest players of all time. I wonder how many more miles they are willing to put on their legs for training, for tournaments, for everything else in life!”

During the pandemic we moved to a gorgeous new permanent home. I started a wonderful new job. I finished my 30th marathon, a milestone that coincided with my 11-year-old daughter completing her first and my husband his third. I became a stay-at-home, working full-time parent who rediscovered what it is like to be in heaven watching my daughter grow leaps and bounds as a student, poet, and fun, beautiful person. I had poems and essays published in newspapers and an anthology. If you haven’t guessed, I’m older than Serena and Venus by some years!

And yet ….

I could hear the inevitable, slow, low growl of my inner pig dog.

Even though I vowed not to attempt my 31st marathon until next December when I would venture out with my family to finish those 26.2 miles together, I missed the aches and giddy exhaustion of training.

Even though I volunteered as a guest German teacher and judge for a language festival at a high school, I missed teaching.

Even though I recently found out my daughter and I will be included in a poetry anthology together, I missed the thrill of writing a new poem from scratch (rather than work on second and third drafts of poems that need fine tuning).

And even though I’m surrounded by accomplished, dedicated musicians in my new job at a youth symphony who are also capable, accomplished administrators of the symphony, I’ve been wondering about recommitting myself as a bassoonist who misses an instrument I fell in love with decades ago.

Well …

I had my fourth bassoon lesson yesterday and today actually practiced on my own. I ran miles this morning at a pace that could put me on track to complete a marathon in July. I wrote down titles of two poems I hope will emerge from my head in the near future. I wrote the language guru at the high school that welcomed me this year and offered to volunteer an hour a week when the new school year begins.

It wasn’t all that spectacular, but it sure feels better than wondering “should I, might I, could I, what if I, maybe I ought to.”

The inner pig dog has been fed! But it will growl again!

Words

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A stunning young artist and author, Michele Pinczuk, who turned her struggles with autism and chronic inflammation that turned her body against her, recently died far too young.

Her words, though, live with and inspire me every day.

Two quotes in particular stand out.

“I see, hear, and feel the world differently than most other people. And to be honest, I wouldn’t want it any other way.”

And, heartbreakingly, “Even though you died, your words can still flourish.”

My words were first published when I was 7, a poem in a school newsletter that was sent to parents. In the years ahead when it seemed like most of the small town on the Edge of Appalachia knew I was gay before I did, I hid in my written words. They were far more beautiful and confident than I felt as a skinny, blond kid with big ears and a big nose, than the words I spoke with a voice that evoked startled reactions in people who seemed to do a double take. I could almost read in their faces the thought chain: “Oh, he’s different. He might be gay.”

I’ll never forget helping out at a school play. I worked backstage, wanting to take part, but not wanting to be noticed. A kind teacher whom I never met was in charge. I worked late, wanting to be helpful, we talked, and then she asked my name. When I told her, she said “Oh, you’re the poet! Your poems are so beautiful.” From that point on I started to trust my voice more and more. I stopped feeling ugly. The teacher’s genuine words changed and encouraged me.

And being published as a poet, essayist, and tennis writer did wonders for my self-esteem, even helped me win scholarships and a few paid trips to literary festivals and major tennis tournaments. My poems were shown at a state art exhibit, in galleries. They gave me my identity.

Last week, our daughter, born with an extra chromosome, was rejected for the new academic year by a private middle school where she had aced the interview, even though her test scores in language arts, but not math, are comparable, in some instances even better than kids her age, even with her impressive extracurricular activities. When we asked why, we were only told the school is college preparatory. When we explained that it is very much our intention that our daughter attend college, we were told, in a voice laced with saccharine, how lucky she is to have parents who are so optimistic.

This week, we applied to two additional schools. We also found out our daughter’s poems, as well as mine, will be published in a major Hawaiian anthology in which almost all the poets are adults. Last December another of her poems was published in a major newspaper. The editors and publishers do not know about her extra chromosome. Our daughter’s words stood on their own.

Michele Pinczuk went through a fair amount of rejection before others discovered what she had known: that all the ways she was different were her essential beauty and a gift to the world.

Fortunately, unlike me, my daughter is growing up with a healthy (sometimes a little too healthy) quantity of self-esteem. She moves easily past the pain of rejection and has found acceptance in the many great communities that have embraced her in Hawaii. Her words are gifts and they flourish.

Hurting More for My Child than Ever for Myself

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Growing up on the edge of Appalachia, my days were sustained by dreams.

In my mind, I would visit major tennis tournaments, maybe even play on the tournament courts. I would be a poet. I would have a smaller nose. I would live in Europe and speak German. I would be surrounded by friends. I would find love.

The dreams were eons better than avoiding the mirror; bus stops where kids of all ages would toss verbal grenades my way as effortlessly as they threw baseballs; baseball fields because I was told I threw like a “sissy” or the dreaded F Word, “fag”; low-traffic walking paths to avoid getting punched.

How does a kid cope with a daily diet of taking in slings and arrows that slowly grind away self-esteem?

I studied like crazy, hoping that good grades would some day help me move far away. I wrote poetry and became a pretty good bassoon player, and won awards. I fell in love with tennis and running, two sports I still pursue. I paid to have my nose straightened and thinned. I surrounded myself as often as possible with people I knew loved me for who I was: my mother, aunts, uncles, teachers, courageous friends who decided it was worth it to be around The Fag.

The thousands of miles were worth it: I studied, lived, and worked in Europe and spoke German every day, my heritage language. I became a better poet and journalist. I gained friends. I fell in love. I married, twice, but the second marriage, legally to a man, has endured for almost 20 years. I did get to visit Wimbledon and the U.S. Open and even played in a small tournament held on the courts in Flushing Meadows. I moved to Hawaii permanently, the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen. And I still have a few marathons left in me to add to the 30 I’ve completed.

And then I fell in love again in a way I never knew possible.

I became a parent of a glorious daughter born with extra chromosome, a girl, now 11, who has had a poem published in a major newspaper where the editors do not know about her extra chromosome; who has completed an official marathon; who is fluent in two languages; who loves learning history, ecology, and science; and who usually says every new day is “the best day of my life.”

And who was rejected, coldly, by a private school after having been strung along for several weeks, after jumping through every hoop and then some she was asked to, after providing all the documentation and letters of recommendation that made my college application seem like a piece of cake, after acing an interview. One of her dads was told by the admissions director, whose sporadic notes were laced with grammar mistakes and an astonishing lack of warmth, that the main reason was that the school she represented focused on college preparation.

Why, yes. My husband and I firmly believe our daughter is on a college path. Why wouldn’t she be?

Rejection is rejection. It rarely feels good. But I know I usually learn from it, try harder the next time. If my daughter ever wishes to change any part of her name, I will suggest Resilient. Or Fearless. Perhaps Glorious.

I’m just very grateful, after I told her the news and let her know how extraordinary she is, that she appears to be hurting a lot less than I am.

Right to Left

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I’m a lefty.

Not just where I lean on most social and political issues, but a real lefty.

I smudge when I write. My hand folds over at a 90-degree angle to my left arm when I hold a pen. I have a great forehand in tennis and a wicked hook when I bowl. I struggle with scissors.

But thick into middle age and wanting to stay sharp, I’ve begun experimenting. I now shave by starting on the right side of my face and move leftward. I sweep our driveway from right to left rather than follow my natural tendency. I try to drink holding my glass in my … you guessed it … right hand. It’s been a bit hard, but I’m slowly getting used to it.

I’ve read this is healthy for the brain, like learning a new language or instrument.

And it’s made me wonder what else I might relearn or tweak. I’m such a creature of habit, a perpetual neatnik, a guy who can eat the same meal over and over, a Quaker who loves to process, a papa bear who protects his daughter fiercely, and, yes, a husband, father, and friend who is lucky that those whom I love most tolerate all this.

It’s never too late, right? I’m hoping to move into the world of jazz rather than stay forever with classical, to acquire a Romance language rather than remain in my safety zone of the Germanic, to appreciate the view from the mountains I’ve managed to climb rather than rush back down to move a boulder up a few more.

And maybe, if all goes well, try a righty forehand!

Marathons

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Yesterday, toward the end of the first of my four Zoom meetings, a presenter said she had run two miles the day before, the most since she gave birth three months ago.

As the meeting was about philanthropy, and I had organized a small, virtual marathon fundraiser a few months ago, my boss noted that minor achievement and also that I have completed 30 marathons.

I laughed and congratulated the speaker on her outstanding presentation while looking after a new baby. I added that my daughter would be celebrating her 11th birthday this weekend.

The presenter, thanks to Zoom, thousands of miles away, smiled and said, “That’s the real marathon, isn’t it? It’s for the rest of your life.”

And more rewarding than any of my 30 marathons, than any personal best, than any achievement, including starting this blog many years ago to honor and celebrate my daughter who was born with an extra chromosome 11 years ago.

She is a published poet in a major newspaper (by editors who do not know about her extra chromosome); this past year she received a medal for finishing her first official marathon (sent by race organizers who do not know about her extra chromosome); she reads and speaks two languages fluently; and she recently hit a home run during an interview to be accepted into a private school that is making her and her two dads complete a marathon to prove that she will be able to hold her own.

I have wanted to tell the admissions committee, “Look, my daughter has more than held her own. She has made people rethink their views about disabilities. She more than can go the extra mile. If you promote inclusion and diversity, why not take a leap of faith and welcome her to a level playing field?”

I’m holding back for now, wanting to see how this plays out.

And letting my daughter know how the greatest privilege of my life has been to be one of her two dads, both of whom feel very fortunate to have joined the marathon of parenthood.

Still Caring About My Bassoon

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Next weekend my daughter, my only child, will turn 11.

A few months before she was born, I found out she was going to come into this world with an extra chromosome, that her life would be defined by Trisomy 21, also known as Down syndrome.

I stopped playing the bassoon.

And I had only recently resumed playing!

For context: I had moved to New England 11 years ago so that I could be legally married to the love of my life in one of only a handful of states that permitted two men to be married. My husband and I had hoped to start a family for many years, but wanted legal protection before we did so. We had been living in Maryland where marriage for us was not possible. We had to pick a state. Iowa, at that time, seemed out of the question. New England was more familiar turf. My husband had received three degrees from Harvard. I had spent summers as a youth in New Hampshire and Vermont. I found a job in New Hampshire. We moved, and a few months later, were legally married, one of the happiest days of my life. Soon after, my husband received a professorship in Germany, but by that time, we knew we were going to be fathers and we wanted to keep life’s options open.

To help settle into my new life in New Hampshire while my husband was away and we were waiting for our baby to arrive, I returned to a familiar love: music!

Although I call myself a poet and “facilitator of philanthropy,” music came into my life early on. I started piano lessons when I was six. By the time I reached high school, I was a trumpeter and bassoonist. I played in prestigious youth orchestras. By the time I was ready for college, I knew I had a choice: embark on a career path as a writer or as a musician. I had won national awards as a young writer. I had been accepted by a first-rate journalism school. And I had a defining conversation with my bassoon teacher.

“Look,” he told me when I was 16, “you have talent. You have potential. If you work really, really hard, I can see you being a professional musician in a small-city orchestra or as a teacher. But I think you could go further as a writer.”

I went to college and received a dual degree in journalism and creative writing. I wrote feature articles for the campus newspaper. I was poetry editor for the literary magazine. I have enjoyed a wonderful career where writing has always served me well and taken me to jobs in beautiful places in Europe and the United States.

And I always missed the bassoon.

Before we moved to New Hampshire I purchased a stunning, expensive bassoon. I started practicing again. I found a great teacher in New Hampshire who helped me overcome my fear of restarting the bassoon, of making a fool of myself. Once I found out about our baby, she absorbed my anxiety about becoming a parent, something I had wanted all my life, now that this unexpected dimension to parenthood would be part of my life for the rest of my lives. She gave me hope. She didn’t judge me when I cried. She understood why I put the bassoon on hold again so that I could make sense of the world and immerse myself into learning how to be an advocate, teacher, and parent of a child who might not even be able to speak, read, or write.

Long story short: my husband, our daughter, and I lived in Germany together for the second year of his professorship, moved to a Quaker learning community in Iowa, then left the farms and beautiful prairies there after two years for a breathtaking world in Hawaii that will be our permanent home.

And our daughter is stunning, fluent in two languages, a poet published in a major newspaper, an accomplished athlete who has already completed an official marathon.

Three days ago I called my bassoon teacher in New Hampshire. Even with all the curve balls that life has thrown my family’s way, with the thousands of miles we’ve traveled after leaving New England, with deciding what to keep and leave behind, I never lost Joy’s telephone number.

With our last conversation 11 years behind us, I took a deep breath. Our connection, or reconnection, was instantaneous.

My lessons will resume in May over Zoom. I’m ready to play again, to start over.

As I was ending my conversation with Joy and we were talking about logistics, she reminded me that bassoon reeds have no expiration date.

I firmly believe, one week before my daughter turns 11, that hope, dreams, and faith also have no expiration date.

My Nose and My Daughter’s Nose

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Growing up on the edge of Appalachia, as a man now in his 50s, I was dealt a double whammy!

1) I was gay although it was the last truth I wanted to admit to anyone, especially myself.
2) After about age 8, my nose kept growing … and growing!

As I grew older, my thick head of dirty blonde hair became an asset. It softened my sharp, long nose and high cheekbones. It also became something I could hide behind.

I needed to!

Writing that my being taunted in my youth is an understatement.

It happened everywhere: in school; at bus stops which I eventually forsook to evade the taunts; yes, even in family circles.

Every joke, every kick in places no one deserves to be kicked, every laugh, every ridicule hurt like hell. Most days, my self-esteem on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being optimal, was about a 2.

Let’s pause for a moment: from age 11, the first time I was called “Fag,” to age 17, I was called Fag or told how ugly I was two or three times a day for an average of 300 days a year.

Let’s multiply: that’s at least 1,800 deliberate attempts to chip away at a young person’s belief in himself, in the universe, in the dream that he would happily fall in love, that he would be accepted.

It didn’t help that my ever-growing nose was crooked after I was pushed off a landing and fell onto concrete.

Here’s the concrete truth: if I hadn’t won national awards for my poetry and fallen in love with tennis, if I didn’t have many in my family and their friends who always rooted for me, I might have actually believed everyone who told me I was ugly and who kept me on the outside looking in.

At age 17, I took matters into my own hands. I worked at a hardware store fixing lawn mowers (really far out of my comfort zone!) so that I could pay for my nose to be straightened, so that the nose bleeds would become less common, so that I might for the first time feel handsome.

I’ll never forget lying on the operating table. The doctors asked each other if they should shorten my nose. They thought I couldn’t hear. I could! I pounded my fist on the table. It worked!

Sort of.

It’s taken me decades, years of overachieving, patient, loving friends, a husband who is brilliant and a saint, and a daughter one could only dream of, to finally, finally, start believing in myself.

Which brings me to my daughter.

Well into the pregnancy, we discovered she would be born with an extra chromosome, an indicator being a “lack of a nasal bone.”

How ironic!

All I ever wanted was no nasal bone, and now my longed-for child would not have one.

Guess what?

She is glorious, a soon-to-be 11-year-old, a complex, sensitive thinker, a marathoner and published poet.

I want her to always know how beautiful she is. I am grateful we live in Hawaii and have been embraced by hundreds of people who have given her the inner belief that she is stunning and always will be, that being a bit different is to be celebrated, that she already has changed the world for the better, that she never has to dread looking in the mirror.

Prince Philip

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I’ve followed royal families for decades. I know more about reigning dynasties in tiny principalities than I do about some branches of my own vast family.

My maternal and paternal ancestors left northern Europe to escape poverty and oppression. As results from consumer-friendly genetic testing have verified, the chances of my being descended from royalty or nobility are slim to none. My ex-wife, with whom I lost touch many years ago, could make a very valid claim that she is a baroness, but that doesn’t make my blood blue.

The claims my family can make are hard work and education. Most left the Old World, as we still sometimes call it (Germany and Great Britain to be exact), as farmers and servants. For two or three generations in the New World, most survived as farmers, factory and railroad workers. My paternal grandfather was a world-class musician, but he was the exception. My mother was the first from her family to attend college. Her mother, whom I called Omi, raised six children, worked as a librarian, and then earned two college degrees in her 50s. Most family members are now, or were, teachers.

I have distant cousins in Bavaria from a branch of the family that stayed in Germany to keep the family farm. I visited them frequently as a young man, often in winter. The house and animal stalls stayed warm because they were separated by one wall.

During one of those visits I remarked to my cousin how Queen Sylvia of Sweden was a role model for me. He practically spit out his goulash made with ingredients from the farm. He lit into me about the necessity of reading more classical literature than articles about royalty. I sighed, not wanting an extended conversation about how I had been reading the great poets in English and German since I was a kid.

I continued for years after following the lives of kings and queens, princes and princesses, dukes and duchesses, earls and countesses, barons and baronesses. Like so many in this world, my favorite was Diana, Princess of Wales, whom I greatly admired for her fearlessness, public support of and dedication to marginalized groups, for her open heart.

When Diana died, I was a just a few years away from my meeting my husband with whom I eventually became proud parents of our own princess, our glorious daughter who will soon turn 11.

I still follow royalty, usually late in the evening when light reading about their trials and tribulations helps me fall asleep. I was certain I would be engrossed in the life of Prince Philip, the Queen’s husband, or consort, for most of his 99 years. Articles about his funeral were everywhere.

To be sure, I looked at the pictures and read three or four articles. But then I had to stop.

I’ve had two uncles die during the pandemic. They pretty much died alone. There was little pomp and circumstance. Like Philip, they were dedicated to their country, loyal to their families, and changed hundreds of lives for the better. But members of their own family, my family, had little opportunity to partake in the comforting and healing rituals that make grief more bearable.

Particularly in my mother’s family, these rituals are what Quakers would call “weighty.” When my grandfather died, all the grandsons who were able helped carry his coffin. When his wife, my grandmother, passed away years later, the granddaughters joined their male cousins and brothers. These symbolic acts have always brought us closer together as a family, have given dignity and calm to the overwhelming sadness of burying a loved one.

I realized reading about Prince Philip that I could be a better person, that I could reach out more to my uncles’ families. The pandemic has taught me that nothing should be taken for granted, that as we have lost so much of what we once had control of we can now be more mindful of extending kindness, time and love.

Old Wounds

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Yesterday I inadvertently bit the same place inside my mouth three times during waking hours.

I also aired old grievances with my family three times about same tired subjects that caused us a little pain.

I wish the latter had been inadvertent, but it wasn’t.

I was fully awake. My words were deliberate.

I also knew I was probably safe, that the minor wounds I had reopened would heal quickly like the inside of my mouth, that my family likely wouldn’t run out the door.

But why, in both cases, did it seem like I was guided by radar to make life unnecessilary unpleasant with the two people in life I love the most, my husband and daughter?

I could chalk it up to a difficult week and letting frustrations seep through as a form of release on a formless Saturday.

I could say that the pandemic has made me feel isolated and more thin-skinned.

But I would be cutting myself a big break instead of admitting that as I wade through middle age, it would help everyone if I were more open to breaking old habits.

I’m very fortunate because I don’t deal with my struggles alone. I have great friends, a family that means the world to me. My husband and daughter are saints.

Instead of making a habit of biting remarks, I want to focus on what really matters in life: the accumulated hours spent with each other for years, the shared laughs, joy, triumphs, tears, and love that can never be replaced.

By the way, biting the inside of one’s mouth is behavior that can be changed!