Monday, June 22, 2009

Papa's got a Brand New Bag

(Author's note: just to be perfectly clear, I am not a dad YET. In another month or so. It's a little like waiting for Godot, but at least we know where the baby is.)

Papa's got a brand New Bag, indeed. And in that bag, shiny inside the packaging, is Papa himself. My wife is giving birth to our baby, and I am going to have to give birth to a father, who is me and yet who is hopefully better, brighter and shinier and stronger. There are a million types of fathers here in the naked city, and no telling yet which one you are. I'm not cut out to be the one who goes out for cigarettes and never returns, because I don't smoke, but that's all I know. And I don't get to know, until it's all over, which means I never get to know, because we are starting a family, and it's never over. Until it is. I admit that watching a line of distant cousins flicker to extinction in a nursing home in Seattle played a role in my decision to become a father. And that decision will end up maybe reverberating down through my own family. Maybe I will make such a hash of fatherhood that vows of celibacy will be taken. Maybe everything my child does as a parent will be with me as a negative example fresh in his head. But adjustment is possible My wife can tell me that I'm coming on a little strong, or that toddlers really don't get sarcasm-- unless, of course, she's gone out for cigarettes. And even if she does, there are many ways of winning at parenthood. Sometimes it's being the best listener in the world and not saying anything. And maybe I fail that test, some of the time. But I can redeem myself later, when all that matters are the four most important words I will ever say: "Look out! Runaway bus!" . There are peaks and valleys of parenthood, is what I'm saying, and everyone goes in without a map.

Having no map, I must look for landmarks around me, to see if anybody has left me a message, scrawled on a rock, or in some freshly guzzled, still damp fifth of Jack Daniel's. There are none to be had, for at this stage, it seems, everyone has gone out for cigarettes. But I am starting fatherhood at the age that my pop, this kid's Old Grand-Dad, was when I graduated from college. I'm not sure that repeated cries for the kid to get a decent job are appropriate here, but I guess it can't hurt to get an early start, since I'll be retiring almost exactly when my son graduates from college, an all too literal example of the generational compact of Social Security. I am late to this party, as I am late to almost everything, or so it seems everywhere I look. Except for around my neighborhood, where wiry, greying dads push strollers with the stolidity of yoked oxen, or jog behind them, racehorses gone to stud, pushing their own Triple Crown dreams onto their kids while guiding their Quinny's around the Rose Bowl. If they can do it, so can I. Why this grey-by boom? Does maturity come so much later now? is it that maturity has always come now, and our previous generations of younger parents were even more terrified and clueless than we are? Or does the specter of the flame extinguishing itself finally give the necessary push?All I know is that in my own mind, at some point "not now" became "why not now?" and then each month without the child became its own anxiety: "WHY not now?". And then finally, relief on that score, and a whole new set of anxieties. And so on, from now until the end of etc. etc., see paragraph 2.

I used to think that making a baby was a kind of zero point for becoming a father,a useful lower bound ; for instance the courtroom question "Did you father that child?". But for me the first decision was to make a home for the baby in my life, to see if I had reached the point where I had to do this. Of course, these discussions weren't just for me, by me-- I would have been royally pooched if they were. Fatherhood begins as an idea, and it has to be translated into reality again and again and again and again. And in that translation, you go from being a father to becoming Dad.

See, fathers make only one thing: babies. There's always a father involved somewhere, whether smiling as you remove your clothes, ladies; or grimacing dutifully over a test tube and a copy of "Perfect 10". But everything that a man can do after that requires a Dad. Being a father is formal and abstract. You can die never knowing your father; but you'll never do that with Dad. Dad is informal as hell. Dad is concrete, not abstract. One thing would have made me a father. But being a Dad means to keep making things. As a dad to be, I have sat in on ultrasounds, massaged my poor wife's neck and lower back as some hedge against the discomfort of her steady inflation, helped put together a baby registry, done the dishes, cooked most of the meals, felt guilty about missing the breastfeeding class even though I'm not about to do it myself, and done the dishes again. And again. I have built walls, painted trim, picked up cribs and mattresses, found an antireflux pillow and have grown just a little bit with each task. I am ready to be a dad, dammit. I'm only missing the one thing that will tell the world I am.

But these are just names, people say, and by people I mean fictional strawmen who exist only to make me look good. But names are important. For me, mother and father are titles. But mom and dad are people, real people I know and love and probably put through hell at one time or another. You can father a child by mistake, but being a dad takes concentration and preparation and years of improvisation. A child can be a father, but being a dad means being an adult-- there I said it. The A-word, that most misunderstood, oft-euphemised, and belittled state, and the most necessary for the survival of the culture. The only phrase that's straightforward about it (“adult books” “movies” or “beverages” don't count) is “responsible adult”, which is made to sound as exciting as hi- fiber cereal. But it's thrilling, in its way. Being a responsible adult is the feeling you get when you first ride your bike without training wheels.

There are ceremonies and laws and rules of thumb to tell you when you have become a man, but rather tellingly, none that tell you when you've become an actual adult. For me that time definitively came a couple weeks ago, when me and my ripening honey sat kissing, legs wrapped round each other, on top of the brand new linoleum floor I had just laid down, in what is now "the baby's room". With each smooch I held her as tightly as her abdomen would allow, and I could feel my heart pounding and my blood rising , and I thought so loudly I wondered if the neighborhood could hear it : "Yeah, damn it, Daddy's home. He's right here. In our house, which is mommy's house and daddy's house. And this is the room that we decided was yours, and I made for you, because we love you, and I love you. I haven't met you yet but I love you and I wanted you to have this cute little room with its mommy-selected striped floor in Whispering Blue and Sahara, with the bright blue crib for you and the glider I got for mommy, 'cause all mommies need a glider, says so on all the forums and anyway it's great because it doesn't scratch up the cute striped floor-- that's your job, with the toys you'll have and that we'll help you play with. We'll have to see about the puppy, no promises there. All this is for you, and I do it because I have to and because I want to, because fathering is easy but being a dad is hard work and you have to be a goddamn adult to appreciate it, because one of the pleasures of adulthood as a friend of mine has truly written is getting as much pleasure from giving a gift as getting a gift. I gave you life, little boy to be, and now I must give you a life, and you must give me nothing but yourself-- well a secure retirement would be nice, but we'll have to see about that, no demands there-- so for now you just be you and I will give you everything I know how and we'll see how it all works out. Much love till we meet, Dad."

(a version of this piece was performed on June 13th in Los Angeles, as Part of the Lit UP! series. video may be posted shortly.)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Some Lazy SOB with a Shovel

So. for the last little bit, since the project I was working on went away for rehab, I've been doing some unskilled labor around the house. It's unskilled because I'm doing it, aided and abetted by my Dad, who comes up and makes sure I don't kill myself with tools or effort. He has a lot more practice than me and a generally good sense of humor, which is what is needed when I pick up a hand tool. It's not all sweetness and light, as we have different ways about us. Dad is of the type who believes that working means actually doing something, anything, and if he has a hammer in his hand it is usually moving. Me, I prefer to analyze all my options before committing to any one of them, and thus I can usually be found staring at a project, my eyes burning a hole in the atmosphere, as I appear to be attempting to pound the nail with the power of my mind alone. Eventually my hammer swings, blows are landed, something happens. While waiting for that, Dad repairs to his coffee thermos, in which I have often wondered if there isn't something stronger, to salve the frustration at having to watch me work, or think about working. But we have been doing this for a while, and we have learned to complement each other-- my job is generally to say "Whoa there, Tiger", his is to say "Well, let's at least do something." So we have been installing some sweat equity, and nothing is more truly named-- a linoleum floor synthesized from coffee. cursing, perspiration and ham sandwiches; and currently a wall, taking place behind our garage, where we enact most of the travails of the ancient Egyptians, slowly moving block after block, with considerably less grand results-- two and a half feet so far. Well, they had slaves (They didn't? Damn it. Damn it to hell.). We have each other, and a "helpful brochure".

It has been an education, no thanks to the brochure. Everyone should do it at least once. This doesn't explain why I keep doing it, but the fact that I'm cheap and just a bit of a control freak probably will do for that. The thing is, despite the undervaluation of manual labor, its continual marginalization and defamation, there remain two facts about it: 1) it's necessary, and 2) it's hard. It's not just physically demanding, it requires skills that you and I don't have. There is nothing more humbling to the college bound youth than working along side someone who can really use a hoe. I've seen it, and I'll never forget it. That simple tool, bane of casual gardeners and reluctant lawn owners, can be wielded like a sushi chef's knife or sculptor's chisel. My painfully slow "improvements" just makes that memory burn brighter-- the merciless sun beating down on our six-person weeding crew, till finally this kid, an aspiring chiropractor no less, said "We'll never finish this like this. You guys take this half of the field, and I'll take this half." And he finished before us. It was a sight to behold.

And it is physically demanding as well. This wall has taken a lot out of me, and if sweat were equity, then I'd live in the Taj by now. But I had a realization that I really needed as I stood there, drooping off the top of my shovel like a wet gym sock, trying to find another breath somewhere. I had a picture of myself in my mind's eye at that moment, that I had seen a hundred times. Mostly, I'd seen it driving past highway construction sites or street work. We all have seen it-- some lazy SOB with a shovel, just leaning stock-still on the thing, taking what surely must be a long, lazy break. And I have taken this as proof of the decline of America's work ethic, or misplaced staffing priorities, or whatever. Well, now I have some idea of what might have been going on before I drove by and saw what I saw. SOB's with shovels, I owe you an apology. Take your rest, you've almost certainly earned it.