Editor’s note: I tweaked my back last week and couldn’t sit for very long, throwing a wrench in my weekly newsletter schedule. So we’ll call this Week 3-4, and pick up on the regular schedule around Friday, Feb. 22.
Also, this week’s is a little different, mostly a personal essay (And sorry about the subject line tease in the last newsletter. I planned to share this then, but decided the whole thing was too long and pulled it without updating the, you know, TITLE of the newsletter. Oops!). Hope it connects with you.
I’m a grandpa. Have been one for 10 months now.
If you have seen me in the physical world, you most likely know this. You might have even seen me with my granddaughter, Mia. If you haven’t, this is her, from last week.
She’s got soft, porcelain skin, full cheeks, huge blue eyes and brownish curls. She is a very small person, a little over 21 pounds ― which is funny, because I experience her as large, probably because we spend much of our time together up close.
She likes Cheerios and apple sauce, sure, but also blueberries, eggplant, salmon and her grandma’s red lentil soup. We haven’t found any food she dislikes (dairy’s a no-no for another few months). She gets serious food envy when she watches other people eat. As she crunches on a cracker with her eight teeth, I think about how someday we’ll sit together and make a mess of a bowl of spaghetti, or pull apart and share a still-warm pretzel, or eat ice cream from a paper cup with a little plastic spoon.
She is ever-curious and on the move. Her crawling is percussive and bouncy, like a four-wheel-drive vehicle on a washed-out road. She can cover a lot of ground quickly. Moving makes her smile. She wants so badly to walk. She stands, has mastered the three-points-of-contact version and is testing what happens when she gets down to just two. Sometimes she lets go with both hands, sometimes she lifts one foot as well as one hand. Her free-standing never lasts for long. But it will. Soon. Words aren’t that far away, either, I think, though my favorite sound she makes is a deep, friendly growl. She makes it when she is engaged in something she’s enjoying.
A Mirror Facing Backward
For this 53-year-old grandpa, Mia is a wayback machine. She reminds me of an earlier time and a less-creaky me and, second hand, of the challenges of parenting Little Ones. It had rewards, but also real compromises. I remember feeling this fierce love, but also exhaustion and distraction. I have great empathy for Year One parents.
Being a grandpa is simpler. Most importantly, I’m not primarily responsible for Mia. She is a part-time gig. (I am awed by grandparents who serve as full-time caretakers.)
Mia stays overnight at our house, usually twice a week, and it’s a highlight of the week for grandma and me. We play, we sing, we eat, she poops, she cries, she claps, she moves, she tires, she waves across the room, she sleeps. She bangs together blocks, I bang together blocks. She makes guttural sounds and excited sounds and unhappy sounds, I try to stick to the first two. As she develops, night time has many more smiles and far less inconsolable crying.
The part-timeness of grandpahood makes it easier to be patient and attentive. It also helps that I’m more self-assured than when I had my own little kids, and more cognizant of the moment I’m in and less anxious to be in some other time or place. (Score a bunch of points for having a spiritual practice.) I know that Mia is growing fast, that she will be this exact combination of skin/cheeks/eyes/curls/smiles/scowls for a constrained period, and to miss it now will be to miss it, with her, forever. That’s why I love to get close. To hear her growl. To catch her attention by clapping a plastic watermelon slice against a plastic cup from her plastic picnic basket.
Grandpahood is also a second chance. Everyone has heard a friend say of their dad, “He’s not the guy that I grew up with.” That’s the extreme version, and sometimes that second chance can be a repudiation of the first cycle of caring for little people. A dramatic do-over. Other times, it’s a refinement. Sometimes ― similar to when the NFL announces it will officiate specific parts of a football game in a new way in the upcoming season ― it’s a “change in point of emphasis.” I’d put myself somewhere in the “refinement” part of the spectrum.
Whose Story Is it?
One thing I am more sensitive to in this time with Mia is social media. If you have only connected with me through social media over the past 10 months, you probably don’t know Mia. She’s never appeared on my Facebook, Instagram or Twitter feeds. At first, this was a response to Mia’s arrival, which was unexpected and very much tied to her mom and dad’s story. I felt at the time, and do now, that the story of Mia, Marissa and Pete is for her parents to tell. It’s not mine. And once Virginia and I decided to avoid social media related to our time with Mia, the more sense it made to us. We didn’t need it to feel connected to her. In fact, I worried that introducing it might intrude on or complicate a good and special thing.
This plays out against a larger issue I’ve reflected on from my time parenting small children. I am more sensitive now to whose story I’m telling. This gets into the “second chance” territory.
About a decade ago, our younger son Kelly, then about 10, was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis. We did our best to care for him, but it involved trips to hospital ERs and to weeklong stays at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Throughout this time and afterward, I posted about our lives, including several times a photo of Kelly in a hospital bed or in the lobby at CHOP while recovering from a flare of his UC. I did it at the time because I thought I should ― that if I was going to share the fun parts of our lives on social media, then I should share the challenging parts too.
And I found that such posts got a lot of response. Way more than when I, say, shared a photo from a bike ride or an article I appreciated. Sometimes it made me feel connected to people at a time when I could use the support. I also think that the engagement on those posts ― the likes and comments ― spurred me to more posts.
It nags at me today that Kelly should have had more of a say in how his story was told, especially as he grew into his teens. There is this tension that changes over time. As a parent, your kids are your kids; you are empowered to tell their stories. That power is absolute when they are little. Over time, that agency transfers, drip by drip, to them. These days, with 21- and 24-year-old sons (and a 10-month-old granddaughter), I find myself asking, what is the reason for telling their story and when does it become their decision about when and what and how. I’m less certain of that answer all the time and I respect all the answers parents and grandparents come to around the question. For me, I now try to ask if they are OK with sharing something before I do it.
I realize that my decisions might strike some as very alien. That’s OK.
For now, my intention is to maintain my social media boycott for Mia. That could change this year (and it’s fair to ask,Hey Kevin, what is different about a newsletter? For me, it has to do with a chance to add context, my ability to know who will read this, and the lack of a “like” button and an algorithm to pump up its distribution).
And that’s grandpahood ― or Grand Guy-hood, as I’m hoping that’s what Mia will call me as she learns to speak and decides what she is going to say and do. I want to lather her, and her mom and dad, in care. I want to honor her story and bouncy spirit. I want to stay close, till she wants some room, which happens occasionally even now, when she wants to test her limits in this larger world and squirms to escape my protective grip. It’ll happen in more challenging ways as she gets bigger, and this tension will exist more for her parents than me, I know.
But that’s not this day. Today she is very big because she is very close, like a Supermoon. Super Mia. It’s a good day to be a grandpa.
What I’ve Been Reading
I always thought the magnetic North Pole was the same as the geographic North Pole. I was wrong. Even worse, the magnetic has been moving all over the place ― as much in the past 20 years as in the preceding century, says The Verge. That’s not good news for GPS, which helps when you want to track a run or, more importantly, when that airplane you’re on attempts to land at the correct runway. The good news: “Don’t panic,” says an expert from the British Geologic Survey. It’s unlikely to substantially affect your GPS unless you are very near the North Pole ― you’re not flying to Iceland anytime soon, right?
One of the things I’ve thought as I get older, and people I love get older, too, is that one of the benefits of aging is simplicity. And that this simplicity is good, that it pulls us closer to our intentions. While speaking at a beloved uncle’s funeral, I said that I thought that in his later years he became more about the things that mattered to him: his family, his sense of whimsy and jokes, his little dog Mack. My trust in simplicity was challenged by this article from the digital, science-centered magazine Nautilus, which said simplicity is fragile, and that complexity is what makes youthful beings more resilient and robust. As the author points out, maybe we should turn our backs on Thoreau’s call and aim for complexity, complexity, complexity. And maybe, just maybe, this fragility in some ways drives the essentialism of older lives, that this vulnerability is what makes the experience both sparer and richer. (The article included tips on maintaining complexity, too.)
- Seeing the Rams, especially their quarterback Jared Goff, come up very, very small in the biggest spot of all left me feeling pretty good about the Eagles. Schadenfreude isn’t a great look, but it feels so good in the moment.
- Nick Foles remains the last QB to throw for a touchdown in the Super Bowl for another 11 1/2 monthsl!
- J.T. Realmuto to the Phillies is a big move to me. I was not sold on Jorge Alfaro ― all the physical tools, but he never seemed to figure out how teams were pitching him, which was weird in a catcher. And with so many big names still not signed as Spring Training opens in Florida and Arizona, is baseball broke?
- Kudos to Elton Brand on remaking a talented, deficient Sixers team in two short days. That starting lineup is a real juggernaut and the second team now appears capable of defending, if not quite shooting the lights out. The loss to the Celtics threw some cold water on the excitement of the previous week, but I think Brett Brown can come up with a Plan B that leans on Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris when teams (ie, the Boston Celtics) gameplan against Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
- I was hoping in my secret heart that the Sixers would reacquire Dario Saric, who was apparently on the block as a poor fit with the Minnesota Timberwolves. But alas, The Process runs in one direction.
Thanks for reading and to those who have reached out with feedback, thoughts and invitations. I’m happy to pick up the conversation and available at 484-751-7795 and firstname.lastname@example.org, and on Twitter as @kevdonahue. Let me know which parts you liked and which parts you didn’t.
Till next week, stay warm and safe!