Tag Archives: Parenting

Tumbling through Brooklyn

30 Jan

Digital StillCamera

People say time flies when you’re having fun, but that’s bullshit.  Time just flies.                                                                     — Heath Bell

The plan had been to walk Brooklyn, Coney Island to Greenpoint.  An early start with a stop for breakfast in Red Hook, and then a beer in Greenpoint, at that little place on the corner.  In this way I would mark the day.  So come the morning, despite a sore head, a late start, and little desire for a beer at any point during the day, I head out the door.  Coffee in hand, I take my seat on the train, and as the wheels begin to turn the world blurs past.

 I don’t know how to reach him. 

The train takes forever.  The initial pleasure in skipping work fades as the commuters disappear,  leaving only the Brooklyn bound: tired mothers, complacent children, and one very large, angry leprechaun, whose headphones are not taking him to a calmer place.

Even though I see myself in him all the time.

Coney Island is a sad place on a winter’s day.  Bereft of people, the remaining attractions hug the boardwalk like so many dinosaurs, asleep at water’s edge.  Dreamland, Luna, and Steeplechase are long gone, replaced by housing projects, empty lots, and sky.  The few old buildings left along Surf Avenue continue to fade, making room for  an Applebee’s and other improvements reminiscent of a highway rest stop.  A runner passes me on the boardwalk, shirtless in the cold Atlantic wind.  Older guy.  Tough or just crazy?  I vote both, and head inland.

The difficulties in maintaining a friendship, and the inevitable sense of betrayal.  A process of years in my life; minutes in Heath’s.

Once known as the Road of Dreams, Stillwell Avenue is now a bleak strip of auto repair shops and the occasional decrepit house whose demeanor hints at more prosperous times.  A waterside inn perhaps, built along Coney Island Creek when it flowed all the way from Gravesend Bay to Sheepshead, creating an actual island.  Now gray and salt-stained from the spray of traffic, it looks barely inhabited.  I pass by, looking for hints of life, and then continue on, crossing a bridge over the creek’s stilled waters.

How many times has Amy said “Please don’t go away from me”?

Over the next several hours I chip away at the grid, zigzagging through the streets and avenues, progressing at a glacial pace on my journey of discovery.  What do I discover?  Brooklyn’s big.  And Bensonhurst goes on forever.  You heard it here first.

It’s what we do.

Toward the end, hours late for breakfast, legs leaden and feet blistered, having slogged past the auto shops and porn parlors beneath the roar of the BQE, I know I should quit; find a train and head home.  But I don’t.

Not caring.

And then, finally, turning left at the first opportunity, the startling quiet of Red Hook.

Buoyed by familiar landmarks, I head in the right direction, but, strangely, the community fails to materialize.  I see the projects, the parks, the silos, and even the damn Ikea, but the battered little houses where Brooklyn’s more adventurous denizens raise chickens and children in what feels for all the world like some dusty little prairie town are nowhere to be found.  Until suddenly they are, disrupting my sense of geography by appearing at a completely unexpected angle. Having arrived at my destination, I have no idea where I am.  

* * *

He appears as I take off my coat, standing awkwardly to one side, shifting slowly from foot to foot, lost in his own living room.  

“Hey, Heath.”  I toss the words gently, as if they don’t matter, and I wait, not sure if he’s heard me.

And I’m standing at a screen door as my dad tries to coax me into a game of catch.  Embarrassed, because I’m not good at catch, but torn because I know I’m disappointing him,  I cannot bring myself to step through that door.

After a moment, Heath looks up, walks over, and puts his arms around me, awkwardly, as if he’s afraid to complete the hug.

“Happy Birthday, Dad.”

I pull him close.

“Thanks, Heath.”

Looking over his shoulder, I see Amy shake her head.  This was not prompted.

I continue to hold him as long as I can

We feel more than we can show.

And then, without a word, he’s gone.


Heath and I Buddy Walk 2012

Photo of Coney Island from http://www.city-data.com 

An Actress of Uncommon Stature

15 Nov


The performance begins without prelude.

Quietly at first, as we await our breakfast, Hallie catches sight of herself in the mirror and begins to chatter, rapidly but softly, with an intense staccato that slowly builds as, with virtuosic restraint, she works her way, rung by rung, up to the emotional highwire where, finally, she releases all in a swooning crescendo, her arm sweeping the sky as she falls away in a blood curdling “Noooooooooooo!”  A brief pause follows, and then she strains against the straps of her booster chair to check her reflection. Pleased with the effect, and the attention she has drawn, she drops back into her seat, spent from the culminating moments of her five-year old Medea.

But wait! Gathering her energies, she takes a breath and begins again. Initially terse, she launches into a finely wrought internal monologue, a soliloquy of intent.   Passionate, yet controlled, my daughter is rapidly developing into an actress of uncommon stature, her brilliance taking us all by surprise. Certainly, genetics has played a role, but she is now far beyond any gifts inherited from Amy and I, and her talent is all her own.  As a result, in some instinctive fashion, she has gone back, far beyond the modern canon, beyond even Shakespeare, to the primal works of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Not yet regal of bearing, she has, nonetheless, thrown down the gauntlet, challenging the great classical actresses of our time with her staggering combination of intensity, intimacy, and emotional commitment, all expressed with a banana-smeared face and only the rudiments of language.

For Hallie will speak in only the simplest of sentences.  Stubbornly refusing to use three words when one will do, she has expanded this approach into her own unique and rapidly developing oeuvre through which she proves, with each and every performance, that words are merely an adornment to great acting, a crutch for those who lack her artistic rigor and wide open heart.

Suddenly quiet, something shifts, and Hallie enters a different world. The intensity is still there, but it’s combined with a wry sense of amusement, a fatality which, in one so young, is both disturbing and mesmerizing. Could she possibly be…? Yes! She has moved on to Baby John, the youngest Jet in West Side Story! What am I witnessing here? Is she performing in back to back productions? Or has she interpolated the two plays, creating an extraordinary mash-up through which, with her loudly erratic personal rhythm and no sense of pitch whatsoever, she can deconstruct the American musical in a manner that challenges the very boundaries of theatrical convention?

The food arrives and Hallie settles in, glancing across to the mirror and smiling to herself as she begins to eat her scrambled eggs.  Fully aware of the ground she has broken and the ambitious heights she has yet to scale, she is an innovator to her toes, and I fear for the resistance she will meet. Luckily, though, our daughter is fearless, and cares nothing for the critics. Performing only for herself, she alone knows the perfection she pursues.

The rest of us are just lucky to catch a glimpse.

Hallie zoo

To Play in the Rain

26 Jul

This gift will last forever, This gift will never let you down… 

  –-Glen Hansard

Last night, at bedtime, I could feel the pull of the night air.  I stepped out onto the porch and looked out across the sky. Pale blue with hints of pink, and thin gentle clouds that rose into small,  fairy-tale mountains as I turned to the north.  A breeze on the warm side of cool brushed past the leaves as Hallie followed me out. “Wow,” she said, looking up at the sky, her hair dancing across her face.

Crawling out of the water that morning, rivulets coursing down my body, I rolled onto the catch basin, too tired to lift myself completely out of the pool.  Slowly standing,  breathing hard as drops of water hit the cement, I slowly made my way across the pavement and up the stairs to my t-shirt and towel, every movement intensely felt in my tired muscles, happy now only to walk, after swimming so far.  Is this, perhaps, why we left the oceans behind us? The sheer pleasure of moving in a different way?

The summer’s been lean.  After a couple years of abundant money and too little time, I’ve had to learn again how to live with the opposite.  And for the first time in ages I feel as if I’m having a summer.  My life is made of wind and water, heat and rain.  The sun rises and sets before my eyes, and as the days grow shorter, I am happy to sit on the porch with my little girl and say wow to the sky.

Swimming, biking, and eating ice cream; childhood pleasures that have always cheered me.  But this summer I long to add another.

I want to play in the rain.

I want to dance in puddles with my daughter, chase kayaking leaves with my son, and laugh with my wife as we both get soaked to the skin.  It’s been a while, and I’m sure I’ll look crazy.  But that’s okay.  Embarrassment holds little sway in my life these days, it’s just another enemy of joy.  And joy is what I’m after.  It is, of course, all around me:  in the motion of my body and in the air that I breathe,  in the clouds in the sky and the laugh of a friend, in the attention of my son, the touch of my wife,  and always, always, always in the eyes of my daughter, where the world never fails to inspire, befriend and renew; and where love abides for all she beholds.


Following Hallie

12 May

Hallie’s walking now, and as I follow her through her days, I can’t help but wonder what’s going on in her head. 

For though her development is obvious, it is also, due to her Down Syndrome, both skewed, and mysterious.

You see, I’m not a book reader when it comes to my kids.  Some part of my soul quietly dug in its heels early on, and I’ve been resisting the experts ever since.   The downside of this is that I spend a lot of time learning things the hardest possible way.  The upside is that my instincts are my own.

So, of course, I could study up and nail down the developmental mileposts Hallie is likely to hit, and as far as her physical development goes, we’ve pretty much done that.  But the growth of her inner world  leads down a more tenuous path, and rather than burying my head in someone else’s map and fretting over every missed turn, I prefer to let my daughter lead.

Her ways are not direct.

After building herself up early on to a solid 15 word vocabulary, she more recently seemed to reach a dead end.  Undaunted, she did what any sensible explorer would do: she turned around and headed back the way she came.  And so we watched much of her early knowledge dissipate over the past year until we were back to “Da-da “, “Ma-ma”, “Up” and “Done.”  She even stopped saying Heath, for the longest time her favorite word.

But lately she seems to have found a new path, one that has taught her to walk, to sing, and to discover the word “Yeah.”  At this moment in time, this one syllable is her true medium.  Although her intonation is  limited, “Yeah” functions as more than just a sound she can repeat.  She uses it to answer questions.  She uses it for emphasis.  She uses it appropriately.  She uses it.  And for the first time, it feels like language.

I enjoy being lost, which is a gift.  For this is how we travel.  Up in the morning, diaper change and breakfast.  And then Hallie begins her journey.  I follow as she ambles along, her lurching gate growing in ease and strength with each passing day.  Despite her continued negotiations with gravity, she moves forward with joy and determination, smiling upon her world and brooking no obstruction.  She turns back only to make sure I’m still with her, and then, purpose renewed, she heads deeper into the beguiling labyrinth through which she is my only guide.

Hallie Easter 2011



3 Jun

Caterpillars are becoming butterflies.  Five little cocoons hang from the side of a mesh cage in Heath’s bedroom, and we are counting the days until they emerge.

Arriving in the mail in a small plastic cup loaded with enough food to sustain this transformation, the five larvae grew rapidly over the past week before attaching themselves to the lid, assuming the much-anticipated J shape, and, in a matter of hours, encasing themselves in a dense brown shell of their own making.  Having moved them to the larger butterfly cage, we wait. 

Patience is not a word that leaps to mind when I think of my son.  But his imagination, so tightly coiled around all things celestial for the past year,  has begun to expand, and as the school year ends and he moves beyond a teacher who never appreciated all that makes him special, he has begun to relax.  With the addition of a new pair of glasses and a daily squirt of Nasonex, the world is regaining its clarity and my little boy is finding the sweetness and vulnerability he has buried beneath anger for much of the year. 

And his sister senses this. 

Hallie Jake.  We loved the idea of a little girl with such a rakish name, redolent of wise-cracking 1930’s aviatrixes, Amelia Earhart & Kate Hepburn rolled into one.  The kind of woman who could hold her whiskey, throw a good punch, and stand toe to toe with any man.  A woman who was smart, independent and, above all, strong.  Which I have no doubt Hallie will be.  For she is fast becoming a spunky, resilient little girl whose buoyant spirit has become a mainstay in all our lives. 

My own feelings for her are, at times, so fierce as to be bewildering.  

I had heard somewhere that in times past Downs children, considered imbeciles, were often abandoned to orphanages where their heads were shaved and they languished under the minimal care such institutions offered.  What haunted me about this story was the lack of love, horrible for any child, but somehow more so for a child who has a greater struggle to understand.  They must have felt unloveable, as if they deserved their loneliness. 

So in those first confusing hours, when I had no idea what else to do,  I vowed that Hallie would feel loved.  And to this day, when I hold her close as she’s falling asleep, I whisper in her ear, so she’ll never forget, “You are much loved, Hallie Jake.  You are much loved.”  This simple invocation, and the feelings it inspires, has lead to places in my soul I never knew existed.  It’s as if, after living my entire life in a small apartment, I’ve opened a door to discover a palace.

And now, days away from her second birthday, the love she’s received has begun to blossom.  I can see it in her eyes, especially when she looks at Heath: her hero, her brother, and her best friend.

As we move into the early heat of summer, Heath is keeping an eye on his five little charges, waiting for them to begin their gentle struggle toward a new life.  He’s not going to want to let them go.  I can see it coming.  And although I remind him daily that all creatures long to be free and that if he keeps them too long, they will die, I know he doesn’t believes me. 

But, we’ll see how it goes.  That’s a battle for another day. 

In the meantime we await the beating of newfound wings.




16 Apr

“A black hole is, quite simply, gravity gone mad!”

So Heath frequently intones in his stately British accent.  Our tow-headed purveyor of galactic doom, obsessed with all manner of star death, has memorized a BBC video,  and this phrase has become something of a mantra for him, and, secretly, for me as well. 

For you see, I am now forty seven years old, and it has been eight years since that glorious time when I both ran a marathon and appeared onstage in a bathing suit, feeling, as a result, young and lithe.  Since that time I’ve learned a few things about gravity myself, and they are not very pretty. 

Without my shirt I’m beginning to resemble those burly old guys who trot their bellies into the icy waters off Coney Island every New Years Day to frolic about like over-fed otters.  When it comes to my midsection, gravity has, indeed, gone mad. 

And while this cruelest of forces is slowly dragging my pendulous bits earthward, it also continues to keep Hallie’s diapered behind planted firmly on the ground.  Approaching the age of two, her standing is slowly improving, but walking is still but a dream.   Of course, this bothers her not a bit.  She knows little of gravity and cares even less.  In an unwitting reenactment of Newton’s watershed moment, a dustbuster recently fell on her head.  Far from bringing enlightenment, this merely riled her and, after a brief cry and a little soothing, she continued on her way, scooting across the floor in search of objects to scatter, raging at the universe in a language all her own. 

Amy, of course, is affected by gravity not all, being a creature of light, air, and occasionally fire.  The sun to our planets, she warms us when we are cold and lights our way when we are lost.  I see it most with Heath, who struggles with an outsize temper, disowns us frequently, and yet yearns to be near her constantly.  She never forgets this, even under the most trying circumstances, and I, with a temper of my own,  learn by her example daily.

I often wonder how I’d handle fame and fortune.  So many men crumble under the weight of what seems, at my great distance from either, an amazing gift.  I know my weaknesses, and I’m sure I’d stumble a bit, but I doubt I’d fall.  Because somehow Amy, Heath, Hallie and I have managed to create a universe that spins at just the right speed to keep the stars glittering, the black holes at bay, and my feet on the ground.  

So let the testing begin.  I am more than ready.




4 Feb

When I wrote this a year and a half ago it seemed a little too personal to publish.  Now I can’t remember what I was afraid of.

My daughter is beautiful.  Don’t get me wrong, she has her squishy-faced moments.  But when I’m holding her to my chest and she pulls back to look up at me, her little chipmunk head slowly drifting back and forth as her pale blue eyes linger on mine, I would happily hold her forever.

When we learned Hallie had Down Syndrome my secret fear was that she would be ugly.  It seemed a shallow feeling, so I didn’t talk about it.  But it was there.  I remembered those sad old couples from my childhood who waited a little too long to have children and were rewarded with a son or daughter who seemed large, clumsy, and yes, ugly.

With our son Heath we had hit the jackpot.  Fair haired, blue-eyed and whip smart.  He got the best of both of us and from the moment he entered the world his beauty was apparent.  But as crazy as I am about him, I do not remember him possessing his sister’s haunting, open gaze. 

It’s easy to be a beautiful baby, and god knows that some combination of glasses, braces and acne lie down the road for both my children.  But it doesn’t really matter, now.  They’re my kids, and they’ve taught me how to see. 

I have always been short-tempered with those who want me to brace for the worst.  And yet, In the first days of Hallie’s life, I did it to myself.  The hurdles seemed endless and I braced for them all.  But three months later they are falling away.  There will be tough times, I know that.  But I’ve begun to relax, to roll instead of brace, to accept my daughter for exactly who she is with all her strengths and limitations.  And it’s so much easier than I ever expected.

Because she’s beautiful.



I Want To Kill Your Butt

5 Mar

Heath has written a song. 

That’s right, my four year old son, unprompted, while banging on the strings of my guitar came up with this:

I want to kill your butt

I want to kill your butt

I want to kill your butt

I want to kill your butt

I know, it’s like Mozart, right?  But that’s not all.  By the time his mother came home he had refined his creation (in what I feel is a quantum leap) to the far more sophisticated:

I want to kill your butt, break it down, break it down

I want to kill your butt, break it down

Not only is my son a master of rhythm, but I find his lyrical ability and the issues he’s dealing with (the violence of contemporary society, consumerism’s in-your-face sexuality,  and the psychic need to simplify our daily lives) to be astounding in one so young.  Break it down indeed! 

I only hope Amy and I are able to shepherd his creativity in such a way as to prevent early burn out, for already there are clouds on the horizon. 

For one thing,  he’s now hanging out with the Olson twins.  Well, really more Mary Kate than Ashley.  And believe me she’s much more interested than he is!  Despite her incessant phone calls he still seems to prefer a bowl of Cheerios and his “On Site with Thomas” DVD to spending time with the young lady who he has referred to as “that really loud girl”, “scary-eyes”, and, on one occasion, “a little pooey”.  Still, she senses his mad genius and will not leave him alone.  I may need a restraining order. 

And then, more importantly,  there’s the fact that since his intial explosion of creative energy, Heath has been oddly quiet.  Sure, he still sings the “My Shoe Came Unstrapped!” song 67 times a day, as well as his stunningly annoying two note opus, “NEE-DLE!”, which he loves to shout at the top of his lungs for no apparent reason when we least expect it, but these are early, somewhat immature works and in no way represent the stratospheric virtuosity of which he is now capable. 

So where goeth the fire? Has the flame gone out in the very moment of ignition, or is he perhaps in some sort of artistic hibernation?  Heath seems unfazed by all this, but still waters run deep and I fear that on some level he is in the midst of a major existential crisis.

What is the parent of a burgeoning but troubled genius to do?

I fear the answer is, as always, simply the best we can.  So we give him space.  I brush his teeth, I put him in a fresh pull-up before he goes to sleep and I dream of  his future, and all the peaks and valleys that lie before this raucous, stubborn, freckle faced boy.   May his brilliance illuminate the world.

Break it down, Break it down.


Best Cup of Coffee

4 Aug

It was beautiful this morning.  Early sunrise, cool breeze and the sound of leaves dancing.  Not quite enough to get me out of bed for a run, but enough to make me thoroughly enjoy Hallie cuddling against my chest after her 6 am feeding and the both of us crawling back into bed with Amy for a little more sleep.  Heath stumbled in a few minutes later and as all four of us lay in the early morning light things seemed just about perfect.

The city has moods.  I notice this most on days when the mood is dark.  But today the city was serene, it’s people calm and polite, as if all New York had enjoyed a good night’s sleep.  And it probably had, the heat and humidity having broke with Saturday’s storms, leaving the days comfortable and the nights cool.  My dreams, lately a jumbled mass of high school reunions and old girlfriends, grew quiet, and last night I simply slept.  But, having a newborn in the house, I did not sleep enough.

And so I needed coffee, which I picked up from my favorite cart at the corner of Lexington & 52nd.  I don’t know her name, but I love the woman who runs this cart.  She has taken wonderful care of me these past few weeks as I stumble sleep deprived into the city for another day of temping. 

I discovered her one morning when the nearest Starbucks locked it’s outside door.  You see, I know it’s crazy, but I had actually made peace with popping the five dollars for a Venti Decaf Mocha with skim milk and no whipped cream.  In my defense, I had a rule.  No more than once a week, with exceptions for days when it’s raining (as it was on this particular morning).  But the street door I always used was locked.  I could see customers inside, but the door wouldn’t budge.  Then I saw the little sign.  For security reasons I was required to enter from inside the building.  Which meant going through security.  Metal detector, bag check, the whole nine yards.  Ten minutes before I’m supposed to be at work.  For the privilege of paying FIVE DOLLARS FOR A CUP OF COFFEE!  No. Absolutely not!  I stood out in the rain as people hurried past and I scanned the horizon for a coffee cart until BAM!  I saw one directly across Lexington.  I ran across the street and bought a cup of coffee for one dollar!  And it was goooooooood!  And the woman was nice!  We chatted, we laughed, we became, in a small way, friends.  For whatever reason, she was wearing a head scarf, and somehow that made it even better.  Completely restored my faith in humanity.

This morning the prices had gone up.  That medium coffee is now $1.25.  But despite its having been a couple weeks, my newfound coffee friend remembered that I like skim milk and two sugars.  I gave her two singles and she pushed one back. 

“Just give me a quarter next time.” 

“Are you sure?”, I asked.

“Yes, it’s so much easier.” 

And so it is. 

I walked up toward Park Avenue, smiling in the morning sun, breathing in the air of a happy, well rested city.



Gifts from my Daughter

9 Jul

Where to begin. That’s always the question, isn’t it? Every blessed day. Where to begin.

Hopefully this will be an exercise in finding my voice. An exercise in truth, hopefully. Although already I can feel the siren song of various personas calling. The terse, hardbitten realist, the wounded romantic, the hyped up Hunter Thompsonesque truth teller. Bullshit, all. Me. Just me.

I used to tell people I was an actor. That really doesn’t seem to work anymore. Not because I haven’t worked on anything for a while (although I haven’t), but because it’s not enough. People are not their jobs. Their lives are richer than that.

Four weeks ago my wife Amy gave birth to our second child, a beautiful little girl named Hallie Jake. She has my blue eyes, her mothers dark hair, her brother’s temper and an extra chromosome that has changed all our lives in ways I have barely begun to comprehend. As a result, it’s not easy to think very far into the future. I keep bumping into dreams that I fear will never come true. So it’s a day at a time. And in that time things are good. Their is a great deal of love in our little family, and beauty, and strength (especially in Amy, who amazes and inspires me every day).

And Hallie brings gifts.

In the days immediately following her birth, when my mind would not stop trying to somehow fix things, I couldn’t shake the image of myself standing between two sets of trap doors – one above and another both below and within me. Through the door above me came light, and I knew that through that door was my future, my infinitely simple future had Hallie been born normal. The other door, which had dropped open in the operating room the second the neo-natalist said “I’m going to do some chromosome tests,” and then avoided both my questions and my eyes, opened into a deep vast well of emotion that even now I have a hard time controlling. For the first three days I was a raw nerve walking the streets, and my mere gaze would back people down. I was also as clear, honest, empathetic and as deeply human as I have ever been. There’s power in that. And as the door above me closed and faded, there was also peace. These are the gifts my daughter has given me.

And this is where I begin.