Monday, February 16, 2009


I'm contemplating opening this blog up to other fathers of young children who want to write about their experiences. I'm wondering if anyone who reads this has an interest in doing this or knows some folks whom they would like to pass it on to. Leave a comment to this with an email address and I'll get in touch with you if it seems to make sense. I'm trying to keep a lid on all my pre-judgments and the general need to be an editorial dictator. But one thought I have is that my goal for contributors would be that their writing would struggle with the work of parenting on an emotional level. There's plenty of testosterone elsewhere in the world and online. That's not forbidden but I'd be looking for something a tad, shall we say, deeper in addition to that.

I haven't completely made up my mind about opening the blog up but it's the direction I'm heading just because this project seems to need more voices than my own.

Thanks for your interest.


Lately, I've been having some fantasies that seem rather detached from my current life. To wit:

A conversation about San Francisco, the city of our honeymoon, led to a daydream of returning there to spend more time. I imagined Nell and I wandering down a street and turning into a bookstore to get lost for an hour or two. We spilled out of there and into a cafe further along the street and then, our faces soft and serene, eventually wandered back to the apartment we had rented in Noe Valley without a care as to the time. And then....SCREEEECH, the memory of our two very vibrant children crowded into my thoughts. We wouldn't be taking in the view from the Golden Gate Bridge or wandering the boardwalk adjacent to it. More likely we'd be talking our way into the closest bathroom and figuring out which piece of our clothing we could use as a "wipe" since one of us left the actual wipes in the car, or the apartment, or just didn't bring any to the West Coast to begin with. Closer to home my thoughts drift to time loitering in a local coffee shop, where I used to hang out for hours reading or noodling in my journal. Then I remember that someone died of a heroin overdose in one of their bathrooms a while back and I wonder if I'd want to be wiping anything in there. Also, though it's mid-February, the thought of an annual kayaking trip I take to Maine with three or four friends causes my chest to heave with an expansion of breath that it hasn't known in, lo, so so many diaper changes, occasions of getting puked on and generally acting like a bellhop for the under 3-set in my house. There's another way to say all this: I'm tired. Actually, bone-tired, in the sense of the D.H. Lawrence poem.

My parents weren't writers but when I was growing up they could wax downright poetic on the notion of creating balance in your life. But having two kids under two (ish) means your life is constantly out-of-balance. It's like sitting in an over-filled rowboat while a couple of trolls jump up and down on the gunwhales as you paddle. Sooner or later someone's going to bang their head or just end up in the drink; it'll be a miracle if no one gets whacked with a paddle.

At the moment, we're planning to take our out-of-balance show on the road to Florida for a couple of days. This is a really good idea, except that it's not. If you've done something like this, you know the packing considerations related to car seats, strollers, etc. An added attaction is that, while I can't mention my wife's work, I can tell you that she'll be working and that her work goes late into the night. The kids and I will be with her at those places. Or we won't. Or we'll be in a hotel with their grandmother and all the lights off so that they--and we can sleep. Or we won't. (We're not the best planners in our family.) One thing is clear: we'll visit a lot of different bathrooms in a lot of different towns and hope that no heroin addicts have died in them. For a couple of nights we'll stay with her grandparents in a condominium they own not far from the ocean. Which is good. We'll make little plans to amuse ourselves, like "Go to the beach" and "Visit bird sanctuary." We might even get to the beach for an hour or so before someone melts down or gets 1st-degree burns. But our "To Do" list will look more like,

Find a place that sells environmentally friendly diapers
Family-sized Advil?
Will therapist do phone appointment?
Get wipes

We're all addicts for happiness, and for formulas to attain more of it. Sometimes being a parent looks like a big board game designed to demonstrate what a silly quest that is. The point here isn't that there isn't a lot of crazy joy on the journey. It's just that nailing it down and making it repeatable is beyond elusive. Not that my little brain actually registers that and gives up trying.

I'll let you know how the trip goes.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Hungry Pigs

Lilly's dolls are a varied bunch, the only theme being that they were brought into our house by people we know and that they look like either animals, overfed and badly-dressed babies, bowling pins with faces, and cats (their own special animal category in Lilly's world). Some of her books are animals in disguise. Or are those animals in the guise of books? There's also a silly cadre of washcloth finger puppets: pig, cat, cow, horse, goat. All, including Elmo in his various iterations, are drafted regularly to play roles in the Wizard of Oz.

Lately they've been behaving VERY badly. Just this morning, the bowling-pin pig went on a rampage, trying to devour everything in his path. He snorted and sniffled in the guitar strings first. "That's not food," Lilly screached. Then he went after the bowling pin cow. "That's not food either," she said, more delighted but a little less certain about the nature of the game. Soon, the pig started snorting and sniffling Lilly's little PJ-clad body. "I need snacks," he kept saying. "I need snacks." (She was covered with flour from an early-morning bread-making project that went completely off the rails when she discovered how fun it is to watch flour float down from the bread board onto the floor.) In other words, the perfect target. The flour, dabbed on her nose and cheeks and caked on her fleecy PJs only delighted the pig more. "Mmmn. Mnnnhh.Slup.Urgghle.Hmmnh.Mmmmnnn." The pig chased after her and pinned her to the carpet. He (of course it's a he) was loving his wriggly 26-pound feast. Not so much Lilly. "I'm not food," she said, laughing. The first time. "No, I'm not food. I'm not food." Each time her voice rose a little, became a little sharper. "I'm not food!" She finally screamed in a way that got through to the pig. He stopped, put his nose down on the table, like he was lying at the end of an alley now, returned to his life as a bowling pin in Lilly's little game.

I felt terrible but I can't say I was surprised. All of her animals have been behaving badly lately. Just the other day that pig got decked by the bunny. "Hey that wasn't nice. Bunny shouldn't do that," Lilly said. I looked down at the bunny, who was at the end of my left hand. Hmmn? It was 10 in the morning. Saturday. I'd been muttering to myself for a couple of minutes--okay, two weeks non-stop--about the relentlessness of parenting. Lilly's endless "play with me" requests were beginning to sound to my ears like the tones prisoners use with one another when they spot a weak link in the crowd. But aggressive? Me? No, that's the very opposite of me, I think.

I'm so gentle with this little girl of ours--and the little boy who is always rolling around the carpet next to her now. Truly. This morning she woke up and came running down the hall from her room. "Hey, what's going on guys?" she said, in her little voice. Her mom was out of town so she clambered up and snuggled in with me. "It's warm in here," she said. "Ooh, your hands are warm, she said, grabbing my fingertips. "They're warm 'cuz it's warm under the covers." I pulled her close hoping I could drift off to sleep but she was having nothing of it. She sat up and put her white kitty in front of my face. "Meow, meow." I couldn't help but laugh. And the love I felt in that moment felt as strong as the roundhouse the bunny decked the pig with.

Parenting seems to defy any attempt at labeling it. Any attempt to reduce it to a word. A few come to mind: Love. Extreme suffering. Ecstasy. Punishment. But it's simply a matter of spirit. Ours rubbing up against theirs, sometimes until they're rubbed raw. Which is pretty messy, let's face it. I feed Lilly well, play with her endlessly, cuddle with her in bed in the morning and hold her hand at night when she drifts off to sleep. I also emit Charles Manson-like screams at times. Sometimes I wonder why if God gave us a natural drive to eat food he didn't also give us a natural drive to potty-train ourselves--or at least run our diapers through the washing machine. And it has occurred to me lately that a bunker built deep in the earth would not only protect my family if the apocalypse comes but that it might serve as a comfy "Man room" until then. So....

Lately, I'm doing my best to learn the entire libretto from the Wizard of Oz. But halfway through many of the songs, Lilly stops me and says, "No Dada, that's too fast." Or, "No, Dada sing it like this," after which she proceeds to sing it dead on key. Sometimes she'll just say, "No Dada, don't sing." Her spirit sings out in her every interaction. A spirit of love and trust and of the most precious engagement with all that is life. My spirit sings out too, I suppose. It's singing when I'm cleaning up her spills and when I'm driving around the valley trying to figure out how to sing "Here we go a-wassailing" on key. It sings out too, when another pig goes on a rampage and when the bunny sucker punches the kitty. Maybe spirit is like that--a little rough around the edges. Maybe it's just that messy inner liveliness that we recognize as truth and beauty in our children and we have so much trouble trusting in ourselves. Maybe.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Things that quicken my heart:

The warmth of his velvety skin against my cheek.
The solid maleness of this little creature. Already he's thicker through the upper arms, back and torso than his bigger sister, like he sneaks out and chops wood when we're not looking.
A glimpse of my father in his blue eyes. It's there and then gone just as quickly and I ache to pull it back.
The burble of sounds from his mouth as he bounces in his chair. And the promise of the words to come.
The feel of his head resting in the nest of my arm and shoulder as I carry him across the house.
Blue jeans on his bowed legs.
The smell of his perfect head. It's like a whiff of hay on the breeze.
Bedtime. His. Bedtime. Ours.
His sister murmuring his name and brushing her cheek up against his.
The firm S-curve of his spine as I hoist him aloft, naked to the world.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Over the Rainbow

By my calculation, Lilly probably listened to “Over the Rainbow” between 35 and 45 times today. The CD player in her room somehow got jammed on “Repeat” during her rest time and I didn’t have the juice to climb the stairs—13 of them, I’ve been counting lately—to fix it. Not that I would have known how. And not that she minded. It’s all Wizard of Oz all the time around our house these days. And in our car. On our walks. Compared to the Wizard—meaning, mostly Dorothy and her impossible/possible journey—Santa didn’t have a chance. He came and went on Christmas with barely a mention, outside of a couple of pudgy-looking reindeer that came to us from folks who work at the church next door to our house.

When he’s not asleep or smiling up at one of us from the changing table, Joey spends his days right now in his bouncy seat, swinging from side to side and caroming off the doorway leading into the kitchen. He’s 4 months now, grabbing at everything and threatening to sit upright at any moment. Lilly meanwhile is running around the kitchen, screaming: “Let’s sing Over the Rainbow superfast Dada. And she skitters around like the song is propelling her motor. “Somewhereovertherainbowwakeuphigh,” like that. I say “wake up high dada.” There’s another fix she’s made to the song that she loves and here it comes. “theresalambthatIheardofonce inalullaby.” This morning, she sang it to a handful of people before church started and she looked up at me playfully when she got to the “lamb” part. A little too knowing in her charm maybe but charming nonetheless. She’s 2 ½ after all.

Mostly, we surf across the top of the charming madness that is our children’s childhood, pretending that we’re fully evolved adults with mortgages, meaningful work, books on our bedside tables, and messy histories that we’d rather not talk about—especially around toddler ears. The truth is messier than that though and lately I feel like I’m constantly dipping in and out of my own childhood, even while the God that I know seems to have put me and my partner in charge of a couple of children of our own.
I’m in church this morning kissing my sons cheeks, and he’s not cooing as much as he’s humming like a lovestruck bee. His voice echoes around the simple sanctuary and my mind immediately spins to my own father. Did he kiss and cuddle me like this? Lie down in bed with me at night and listen to my breathing, the way I listen to little Joey’s. Did he crave that skin-to-skin contact that I can’t get enough of lately?

The past also echoes its way into the present when we’re driving around the Valley, Lilly and Joey strapped in for whatever our latest gambit is. I know it’s 2008 in my head as we cross the river and head for the grocery store a day after Christmas. But the strip of stores that is fast replacing beautiful farmland puts me in mind of the iconic strip near my own hometown and the not-quite-square farmstands that slowly melted away with my youth. We had designs on cutting our own tree at a farm in the hilltowns west of where we lived. But an ice storm that cut power to some towns for upwards of a week pushed that idea aside. A few days later we found ourselves across the river and guiding our car into a deserted farm stand where someone was selling trees off the back of a tractor trailer. We nosed our car almost up against a rotund balsam and I suddenly saw my father in the driver’s seat. “Maybe we should take that one,” he would say, even before getting out of the car. But this time it wasn’t my father. It was Nell, who at times exhibits his gift for efficiency. I protest, because not to means drifting completely into the past, and falling completely out of the present, which will be calling from the backseat momentarily. Soon we’re home with the tree and reaching directly into the past in the form of ornaments that have come down through our own childhoods. Tin soldiers, a crocheted Christmas ball made by a wonderful aunt, an entire entourage of snowmen with their permanent-marker dates on the bottom offering more proof of my ever-present childhood. Lilly plays with them like toys, or manages to dismember them with the cheerful ineptness that is 2 ½. I want to gaze into them for hints about the future, the way the witch gazes into her crystal ball to scout out Dorothy’s location. But we hang them on the tree, plug in the lights and barely take note of the tree's tender beauty before rushing onward to the next event.

Santa and Oz did cross for a minute this year in the form of a 30-minute, toddlerized version of the Wizard of Oz that, I mean “Santa,” gave to Lilly. In this version, the wizard looks no more other-worldly than a bowling ball. The music, clearly left behind in some ugly copyright battle, is nowhere to be found. The whole thing comes off like an episode of Scooby Doo. It’s an assault on our artistic sensibilities but not on Lilly’s. She watches transfixed from the couch and doesn’t care a whit that the Tin Man’s song—perhaps the most clever few stanzas ever set to music—is nowhere to be found. The witch scared the bejeezus out of me as a kid sitting on my own couch. We haven’t watched the adult version yet because Lilly’s too young. But contemplating the flight of the witch past Dorothy’s window as the shards of Dorothy's life spin about still gives me chills. I contemplate the way the shards of our own lives appear and re-appear from time to time as I move about through our lives. Just this afternoon the sight of Lilly stamping in muddy puddles and of her little jeans soaked nearly up to her crotch nearly made a puddle out of me. But there were dishes in the sink, and piles of things that needed to be moved around and made into other piles of things, only to be moved and moved again, across our house and across the ages.

Monday, December 15, 2008

"You're a Great Dad!"

It happens in the basement of a building where my wife is working. Little Joey in the front pack and me bobbing up and down spastically trying to get him to settle/sleep. My wife is upstairs working, as she does many nights. A woman comes by--it happens to be someone I know--and gives me the "look." Her eyes get all soft, her face just opens up and then she says it: "You're a great Dad."
These are never the wrong words to say to a parent, of course. A lot of us will just melt into a puddle of tears at the words, just because there are so many big and little moments during the day when you feel like you're behaving more like some rogue dictator, meting out punishment and laying down arbitrary edicts to your powerless nation of littlies. So if you think I'm doing a good job say so and watch the tears comes to my eyes.
I hear this a lot. What I wonder about is why mothers don't get the same kinds of fawning reactions. I catch myself in this double standard all the time. The sidewalks in our town can be full of moms with one kid on their back, another kid in tow, and a couple of grocery bags hanging from an arm and it doesn't occur to me to say, "Wow, great job. You're an awesome parent." Then I'll see a Dad on the street with an infant in a front pack or sitting at a table in a coffee shop sharing a muffin with his daughter. This is a tableau that moves me every time.
I'll keep this short because my own kids are going to be up in a couple of minutes. Yes, please, offer the men you see and know some praise when you see them on the street trying to snuggle their kid to sleep or herding a little one past the 50th set of enticing steps or a sparkly window display. But if you're going to do it for the men, do it for the women too. They're working hard (if not harder). It's just that somehow we fail to notice their work in the same way.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Skin to Skin

Kids have so much lovely, soft skin. In our house it's always on display: on the changing table, in the bathtub, sure. Also, our bedroom, the hallways, Nell's third-floor office, the kitchen, the playroom, the back yard, the front yard. Growing up in my own house everyone always seemed to be covered in layers--make that pounds--of flannel all year long. So a few months back when Lilly was running down the driveway naked and heading for the front of the house my mother, who was visiting, let out an audible gasp. "'s...ah....."
"Naked?" I said.
"Yeah, don't you think you should put some clothes on her?"
Uh, no I didn't, though my mother's commentary took a little bit of the joy of having all that skin around.

When Joey came home in August the amount of kid skin in the family just about doubled. Lilly was born in early May at the beginning of months of inviting summer weather. With Joey there were just a few blessed weeks before fall arrived and we had to start bundling him up. But my relationship with him and his skin was different. I felt free to snuggle up with Lilly, to nuzzle her with a cheek or stroke her back, massage her legs or just generally absorb the beauty of her naked body. When Joey came home, though, there were all sorts of questions fluttering around my mind: could I nuzzle with him in the same way? Stroke him so lovingly? Kissing felt funny at first. I remember his slobbery lips brushing against mine one early morning as I was carrying him back to bed. Those lips were so soft and slippery-delicious. Who doesn't like kissing? But I felt uncomfortable; the weight of the culture was pressing in, invading our little House of Skin. Maybe it was the weight of western, American, male culture. Skin-to-skin? SKIN-TO-SKIN? THAT'S NOT OKAY!
Physical comfort and contact with infants is so pure. But here he was maybe two or three weeks old and all I could think was: am I wrecking him? Already? Is anyone watching? Right now? What would they think? Was there some sort of Stasi of fatherhood that was going to swoop in and cart me off for violating one of the basic tenets of maledom: keep physical contact among our side of the gender divide to an absolute minimum? Outside of butt-slapping on the football field, it's all supposed to appear nearly accidental.
Joey has this blocky little torso and is already muscly around his shoulders and upper arms. And that chubby-cheeked face of his already has hints of maleness to it. Yep, he's got a penis. But blessedly he's got no sense of gender. This occurred to me over a matter of weeks, the way an ocean current slides beneath your boat and moves you slightly off course over a matter of hours or days. He's not a boy as much as he's a squeezable little human with tight little fists and the best smelling head ever. His skin of course is the conduit to his tender, still-under-construction nervous system. Placing his skin against mine is probably the best thing I can do--for him and for me. Being belly-to-belly is like mainlining a box of sedatives, which is why he sleeps so soundly in bed. He cuddles in between us but really he sleeps with his mother. Sometimes early in the morning I'll look over to see that he's slipped off the breast, but never completely away from it. It will look like he's using his mother's breast for a pillow. It's not hard to put my own envy aside. Skin-on-skin. The look of contentment, of pure ease, is impossible to miss. There's a lot to be learned from that pre-dawn tableau. I'm learning as fast as I can.