We got home this morning from a family grocery shopping excursion and saw this little fellow sunning himself across the street. Life in Florida!
Esquire taught me how to be a man. Not the deep, esoteric definition of manhood. The practicalities are what I’m talking about. I used to have it delivered every month when I was in my 20s. I read it cover to cover. There was brilliant writing to be found there, and I wanted to be a brilliant writer. Plus, it smelled good. Esquire used to come with page after page of cologne samples, those scratch-n-sniff type things with the glued fold-over. I’d go through each edition and pull open the samples, just to learn what I was supposed to smell like. You know, as a man.
So, I was wandering through the supermarket doing the grocery shopping Saturday (as you do) and came across the magazines. There was Esquire, with Brad Pitt’s greasy long hair and bug-eye aviator glasses and rugged man-of-the-world glare on the cover. The tag line was something of an Esquire institution: How to be a man 2013. Also on the cover (what made me pay $5 to buy it) was this: In Defense of FATHERHOOD, a manifesto for the 21st century.
OK. They got me. Nostalgia for my 20s wasn’t enough, but Esquire found the sweet spot of my 40s.
After I stopped to sniff the sample of l’homme by Yves Saint Laurent (“A magnetic, sensual fragrance, both elegant and intensely fresh”), I found Stephen Marche’s 1,000-word essay called Why Fatherhood Matters. I would normally link to it here, but it apparently isn’t available yet online. If I find it later, I’ll add the link. For now, I’ll sum it up. Marche outlines fatherhood in the context of losing his own dad, giving the institution double weight. Some become a man when they become fathers, Marche writes, and some become a man when they lose their fathers. Oh, and fatherhood creates the last meaningful bond between men and women. In short: Fathers are indispensable.
In the same edition, I found Richard Dorment’s piece called Why Men Still Can’t Have it All. I wrote about the topic myself on Friday, and I realize we can’t have “it all,” whatever that means. But, as I wrote in a comment on that post, it’s important for us to aspire to that. Otherwise, why try?
Anyway, Esquire. The magazine has a slogan: Man At His Best.
A man at his best means what, exactly? How does one achieve bestness? I mean, it’s all I can do sometimes to summon the energy to be just OK. Every now and then, though, it happens. All of the fog of life falls away, and I find myself experiencing the sublime clarity of the Best of Me. These moments are few and fleeting, but they almost always are associated with being a dad.
And hey, there’s yet another thing Brad Pitt and I have in common. Based on what I read in Tom Junod’s Pitt profile in this month’s edition, his best moments also are associated with fatherhood. I loved this quote, in particular, because it’s exactly how I feel:
“There’s a constant chatter in our house, whether it’s giggling or screaming or crying or banging. I love it. I love it. I love it. I hate it when they’re gone. I hate it. Maybe it’s nice to be in a hotel room for a day — ‘Oh, nice, I can finally read a paper.’ But then, by the next day, I miss that cacophony, all that life.”
Yes, you can.
He makes that sound, the one between a whine and a groan. He’s sitting down, but he somehow manages to flounce where he sits before screwing up his face and his gumption and yelling:
No. I. CAN’T.
Yes. Yes, you can.
But kids know, don’t they? They know their limitations, or their imagined limitations. Something, instinct maybe, holds them back when they approach that thin, red line. They know that on the other side of the line they’ll find frustration and tears and – probably – pain.
Maybe it’s because of the fresh, if subconscious, memory of those first, halting steps as a toddler and of the many falls that followed. Maybe it’s because all they’ve known since they exited the womb was long stretches of failure, punctuated by incremental moments of triumph that almost immediately were relegated to the foothills of achievement that crouch in the shadow of the mountain of What Else You Got?
I envy published authors. They just make me want to toss my laptop into the dumpster. But published authors who can also BUILD A SWING SET FROM SCRATCH IN THEIR BACK YARDS?
There’s a special place in the purgatory of the smug set aside just for them.
I’m joking, of course.
Even if I wanted to despise Mike Adamick because of his many successes (which I don’t), I couldn’t. He’s just too darn nice. So what if he was named the No. 1 dad blogger in Babble’s inaugural top 50 list in 2011? And so what if he proved he is the handy dad of all time by compiling and publishing the Dad’s Book of Awesome Projects, which publishes May 18 and is available now for order on Amazon? Does all of that make him a smug jerk?
Nope. Absolutely not. In fact, quite the opposite. I met him only briefly in early February at the Dad 2.0 Summit in Houston, but — like so many fellow bloggers there — he came off as extraordinarily nice. I already knew he was extraordinarily talented. I also knew that, like me, his background was in newspapers.
When I found out he was on the verge of publishing his book, I made sure I got in line to receive a review copy. For one thing, I knew it would be a well-written book. For another, selfishly, I couldn’t wait to do some of these projects with the boys.
We flipped through the pages together and found one — Crayon Shapes, Page 39 — that we could do after school. And bonus: The neighbor kids arrived home just in time to join us.
Now, because I knew we would be doing this project today, and because I wanted this to be the coolest version of Crayon Shapes ever performed, I went to the mall on my lunch break and bought some Star Wars cookie cutters. We weren’t going to settle for your hearts and stars and Teddy bears. We wanted the Millenium Falcon, the Death Star, an X-wing fighter and Darth Vader’s very own TIE fighter.
Here, then, is how the project progressed, in photos. Bear in mind that I am as crafty and handy as a plastic bag of pine bark. So, any shortcomings in the final result were entirely my fault. Also, we varied from Mike’s instructions a bit. I used a medium-sized baking pan instead of a muffin tin. And I cooked the crayons at 275 degrees, rather than the prescribed 250. Perhaps the results would have been more in keeping with the spirit of AWESOMENESS that pervades the book if I had followed the instructions to the letter. But I like to think part of what Mike’s book is about is branching out, adventuring, learning with your kids and, ultimately, having fun.
Which we did. And actually, when you look at the backs of our chocolate-cookie-looking Star Wars shapes, you see the aurora borealis. As my seven-year-old son observed, it was quite beautiful.
Maybe soon we can try the Homemade Goo Slime, the Super Hero Capes or the Wooden Sword. I don’t see me building a swing set in the back yard any time soon, but at least now I know it can be done, and this awesome book tells me how to do it.
During the five-minute drive home from after-school care Wednesday, there came a small voice from the backseat of my car.
“Dad?” said my seven-year-old son. “Can we go to Target? Pleeeeassse?”
I glanced at him in the rearview mirror.
“Because. I want to get (inaudible) and I have some extra money.”
“You want to get a what? And wait … extra money? How much? Where’d you get it?”
In my mirror, I saw him hold up two one-dollar bills.
“Two dollars,” he said. “Gretchen gave it to me on the playground.”
I had never heard him mention Gretchen (name changed).
“She … who? Why’d she give you money?”
He lowered the bills, sensing from my increasingly agitated and alarmed tone of voice that they would not be his to spend much longer.
“I don’t know,” he said.
But he knew, all right. Or, his tone told me he thought he knew. He just didn’t want to say. I couldn’t blame him.
“Come on, now,” I said. “Why did she give you money?”
Then something occurred to me. I actually had heard her name before. In fact, I had heard it just ONE DAY before.
“Wait,” I said. “Is she the one who gave you that coin yesterday?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I think … I think she just wants to be my friend.”
The coin was one of those brass-colored presidential dollars. You know, the ones that pay homage to all the unknown presidents ever to hold office. The coins you get back in change at the zoo and practically no place else on Earth. He’d mentioned the coin on Tuesday. I asked him that afternoon why she gave him the coin, and he just said she wanted him to have it. Then I immediately asked him what he had done with that coin.
“I bought a snack with it,” he had said.
Fair enough. It was only a dollar. Probably had Millard Fillmore on it. No big deal.
By Wednesday afternoon, though, the same first-grade girl had given our first-grade son three dollars in two days, for no apparent reason. And he had accepted that generous gift with no questions asked, apparently. I presume he asked no questions, anyway, because when I pressed him for a reason why she gave him three dollars, he repeated his theory that she just wanted to be his friend. So, he clearly had no Earthly idea. Or if he did, he wasn’t ready to tell me.
His four-year-old brother had another hypothesis.
“She wanted to kiss you,” said the four-year-old.
“NO!” answered the seven-year-old.
“But listen,” I started. “Why would she … ?”
I stopped pressing, because … well, sometimes even little kids just need space. Sometimes, little kids, especially, need space.
Yet, because it is wrong to accept unearned, unsolicited money from little girls on the school playground, we convinced our first-grader to give it all back, all three dollars, the next time he saw her. We emphasized that he shouldn’t be conspicuous.
“What’s conspic … conspicu … ?” he said.
We emphasized that he shouldn’t make a big deal out of it in front of a bunch of other kids, that he should just tell her, nicely, that Mommy and Daddy don’t allow him to take money from others. Then, give it back to her. Be kind, we said. Don’t hurt her feelings.
We didn’t ask him to tell her that friendship can’t be bought. We didn’t even ask him to tell her that he would be her friend, money or no money. If he wants to be friends with her, fine. If not, fine.
Sure, it crossed my mind. What if he stole it?
No. No chance. I felt sick just considering the possibility. He is honest to a fault, as honest as the family dog, as straight as uncooked spaghetti. He knows right from wrong.
But … what if it was a playground protection payoff? What if our seven-year-old son had, without our knowledge, broken into our Sopranos DVD set and learned the art of the shakedown from Tony and Paulie and Silvio?
What if she was paying him to quit bugging the hell out of her? Or what if he had done her homework for her, and this was the fee?
He accepted her money, whatever her reason for giving it. He clearly knew he hadn’t earned it. What kind of monster are we raising?!?
OK. Not a monster. A shark. He knows a sweet deal when he sees one. He saw the angle, which was free money from a girl at school, and he played it.
The “why” of it didn’t matter much. Besides, it’s probably exactly what it looks like.
It’s the age-old story. Girl meets boy. Girl likes boy. Girl pays boy cold, hard cash. Indifferent boy buys a snack and begs unsuccessfully for a trip to Target to spend that cash just as fast as he possibly can. Boy grudgingly gives cash back to girl. A classic tale of young love denied.
It’s a mommy, a daddy and the kids. And their pets. They live under the same roof and do everything together.
That’s what my seven-year-old son says family means. Then I ask him about Mimi and Granddaddy, Pop and Grandma Judy, the great-grandmas and aunts and uncles, the cousins – and all their pets, all their roofs.
They’re all family, too, he says.
And all their friends?
And the people who came before, the great-great-grandparents and the nameless faces that stare back at us from 100-year-old black and white photographs? The ones who came before that? The men, women and children who lived lives we never consider from day to day, but whose every action in life helped shape who we are? Or who we think we are?
Yes. They’re all family, too.
The Britons? The Romans? The Greeks? The Gauls? The Egyptians? The Syrians? The Algerians? The Mongols? Were they family? When does it end? Where, and with whom? How? Or does it end at all?
Take it all the way back. The biological thread stretches backward, unbroken across eons. A hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years ago … someone (many someones) walked the planet then who carried around the very essence of you.
They could not conceive that you would one day exist, any more than you can envision their lives or deaths. Those long-ago people were family.
But what if we’re adopted?
Um. Family is as family does. Momma always said family is like a box of chocolates.
There are other kinds of family.
La famiglia. La Cosa Nostra. The Godfather. The Sopranos. Every time I think I’m out …
I’ve heard members of certain athletic teams call themselves a member of a family. They did not mean this literally. Although other members of certain athletic teams seemed always to be growing their families, one paternity suit at a time. What did family mean to them? That, I can’t fathom.
There are others.
The church, the synagogue, the temple, the mosque, the congregation, the flock — the family.
Between order and genus, there is family. It’s like this: life, domain, kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, species. It’s all very scientific.
What is family?
It is blood, sure. But it also is the group of people, or the person, or the animal companion that make you who you are, and give you comfort when it can be found nowhere else. That same group of people, or that same person, or that same animal companion can rend your heart and piss you off at depths no one else can understand. Maddening, isn’t it?
They’re close, you see?
Family is close. Even when they aren’t. And there’s this.
Your Mongolian or Celtic ancestor carried within her the spark of you. You carry within you the germ of a germ of an idea of what could one day be a family member who will never know you existed. If you procreate, of course. There’s that.
Which brings us back to:
It’s a mommy, a daddy and the kids. And their pets. They live under the same roof and do everything together.
Yes. That’s good enough for our family. That’s good enough for now.
This is the first installment of my new series, the ASCO Word of the Week. Once a week (or thereabouts), I’ll wax poetic on the meaning of a particular word, a la the famous Essay that not long ago was a mainstay in the admissions process for the revered All Souls College, Oxford. This is not that, but it’s my way of paying homage to that quirky, fantastic tradition.
You might have heard of the Stir. It’s a blog created for moms, part of the Café Mom family of blogs. No? Well, trust me, it’s a thing. I follow it because I write a parent-centric blog, this blog you’re reading now, and because I follow a lot of things like that on Twitter and Facebook.
That’s why I know that this past week, someone from the Stir tweeted this:
“Yikes! That Juice Box Could Be Killing Your Kid.”
Hey, we give our kids juice boxes.
Oh, no. They’re going to die.
Of course I clicked on over to the story. That’s what the tweet was intended to do, make me click the link. The editors at the Stir apparently learned their social media outreach from Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst, the publisher-fathers of Yellow Journalism. Upon further review, I discovered that Jay and Chris were not in imminent danger from juice box plague, or whatever horrible calamity that headline was intended to imply. It’s the sugar content in the juice. They’ll die 60 or 70 years from now because of that.
But they are going to die.
They are going to die, and we are going to die, and so are you. Not necessarily in that order.
For some reason, that knowledge doesn’t make me curl up in a fetal position on the couch and await the inevitable, fatal moment in the company of a Mad Men marathon on Netflix.
Why is that? How can human beings, even parents, set aside the rational knowledge of our inevitable demise to go about the mundane daily business of eating, pooping, peeing, working, playing, laughing, frowning, complaining, having sex, driving, walking around and lying on the couch doing nothing at all?
We compartmentalize, certainly. Besides, dying is a long way off … no it isn’t. It’s now. Somewhere in the world, someone just died. And now.
OK, I don’t obsess about this. I really don’t. But why not? How is it that I can sit here and type these words, reach over and take a sip of this glass of Yellow Tail cabernet, pause and listen to my sons and wife playing together upstairs, let the distraction of the sounds outside my window of peeping frogs and playing children far off on a neighborhood street wash over me in the springtime twilight?
I don’t know. Really, I’m not some existential nervous Nellie. I’ve had brushes with death. I know what it’s like to teeter at the edge of the eternal unknown, but it’s not what drives me every day.
My family does that. And so … I worry.
Not in the Woody Allen, oh-my-God-we’re-all-going-to-die-what’s-it-all-for style of worrying. The kind of worrying that every responsible parent does about their kids.
Are they happy?
Are they healthy?
Were the clothes we dressed them in warm enough?
Are they learning in school?
Are they making friends?
When will the seven-year-old graduate to bicycle riding without training wheels?
When will the four-year-old boy finally learn to pee standing up?
Was the last time I yelled at them one of those moments they’ll always remember about me as they grow older?
Or will they remember instead all the fun we’ve had at places like Disney World?
Or will they remember both, and will those memories be charitable toward me?
Does that even matter?
Will they fall off a jungle gym at the after-school center and break a bone or worse?
Are they getting enough sleep?
Do they watch too much TV?
Do they get enough exercise?
What if we’re doing it all wrong?
What’s that odd swelling on the back of the four-year-old’s hand?
Should we take him to the doctor?
What if we don’t and his hand turns gangrenous?
Do they even make those metal claw hands for four-year-olds?
What if he sticks himself in the eye with his sharp metal claw hand?
And on …
And on …
And on …
Trust in God, you say? OK.
And, you know … every genocide and killer storm and epidemic plague in the history of the world.
No, that’s not going to work for me. See, the way I figure it, God’s not all that interested in the day-to-day minutia that make up our lives. And that’s the stuff I, as a parent, worry about the most. The stuff that informs and shapes the minds of our children, the stuff that won’t kill them in 60 or 70 years, the stuff that parent-centric websites like Cafe Mom would have a hard time turning into a sensationalist tweet straight out of the late 1800s Yellow Journalism playbook.
No, I worry about whether our kids are exposed to enough of the things that will help them live during their terribly long, terribly brief time on Earth.
And I worry that they might fall down and I won’t be there to pick them up, to soothe their anxieties, to tend their wounds. I worry about that, and oh, so much more. I’m a parent. It’s what we do. Worry.
Bad things are going to happen. Bad things, man.
But oh, yes. Yes.
How do we, parents, keep from going utterly insane under the weight of the inevitable?
How do we stop worrying, subdue the anxiety?
We don’t. We participate in it. We say yes to parental anxiety.
Something … life … could be killing our kids!
Yes. Yes, it is.
Not yet, though. Not yet.
Here’s my first guest post, from none other than my 7-year-old son, Jay:
“What are you doing, Daddy?”
“I’m writing, bud. It’s a blog post.”
“What’s a blob post?”
“A blog post, Jay Bird. It’s short for web log. Blog, with a G at the end.”
Silence. He studies the back of the upraised laptop screen. I type a couple of sentences while he stands there, fidgeting absent-mindedly with a Hot Wheels car, shifting his weight from one foot to the other like 7 year olds do.
He’s messing with me. He knows it’s blog, not blob, and he knows I know he knows that. I stop typing and look up at him looking at me. I know what he wants, but I want to hear him ask.
Or maybe it’s not what I think it is. Maybe he’s about to say something about the profundity of 21st century childhood, something so revelatory that it will change the face of parent blogging forever. A quote that will justify the otherwise baffling existence of Twitter for 24th century digital anthropologists. A nugget of insight that will redefine what it means to be a viral meme. Something so deep and funny and achingly cute that it will make the sneezing baby panda video seem embarrassingly grotesque.
Just as I’m calculating the monthly cost for upgrading to WordPress pro; wondering about converting the blog to self-hosted; contemplating whether Federated Media would be too small of an outfit to handle the ads for my newly gargantuan traffic … he said exactly what I originally thought he’d say.
“Can I play Lego Batman on PlayStation?”
“Sure, bud. Need some help?”
I save the draft, power down the laptop. The Joker has no chance today.
Well, it’s been a year. For a dad blog, that’s like eight gajillion people years. On Feb. 21, 2012, I officially “launched” DadScribe without a clue why I was doing it. I wanted a creative outlet, sure. I wanted a presence, something that proved to the world – or the infinitesimal portion of the world that would stumble across this site – that I was a writer. As a writer, I am compelled to tell stories. My stories are the stories of my family, as well as the stories of my time as a professional sportswriter. I said as much in the comments of a recent post by parenting blogger extraordinaire and new acquaintance Liz of Mom 101. Her post crystalized and debunked all the existential angstiness I’ve been feeling as the one-year anniversary approached.
Why did I do this? I could’ve journaled and not published and simply kept it as a record for my sons and their families to enjoy (or loath) one day. I could’ve done that.
But writing is art as much as it is craft. I’m not saying my writing is art. I’m saying writing, in general, is an art form, and therefore demands consideration. Those of us who like to pretend we know what we’re doing with words like to be read. Or maybe that’s just me and my ego. I guess I shouldn’t speak for all writers, many of whom – like Emily Dickinson – simply write thousands of words about their lives and store them in the 21st century equivalent of a dusty old shoe box in the back of a digital closet on their laptops. Sure, but that’s not for me.
I tell stories, and without an audience, those stories don’t exist. Where are the readers? They’re here. They’re nowhere. They’re everywhere.
The digital age, with all of this amazing social media, has allowed me to explore my range as a writer as I never could during a 24-year journalism career. The skill set (writing, editing, critical thinking) I honed as a sportswriter has translated well, I think. My approach to parent blogging also is informed by the journalism ethos I lived by for nearly a quarter of a century. What does that mean? For me, it means I don’t voice opinions without first researching the topic thoroughly. It means spelling and grammar count, and typos are to be quickly and emphatically stamped out, like a stray spark that leaps clear of the campfire and into the dry pine needles. It means writing with a fierce authenticity, including the (for me) difficult decision to use the actual names of my children. It also means writing with compassion, and once it even meant re-writing a portion of a post that unintentionally wounded someone I admire. (But only that once, and only after long, considered thought and advice from my best friend and most avid reader, Beth Gaddis.)
I’ve already written more words here than I intended. I wanted to thank all the people I’ve met through the blog, either in person or virtually, and tell more about the experience at Dad 2.0 Summit, and write something funny about things I learned about myself and my sons during the past year because I started to publish. I wanted to go inside the numbers, break down the analytics, express dismay about some of the disturbing search phrases that inexplicably helped my blog be found by some unbelievably sick bastards. I wanted to marvel at all the different countries where my blog has been read, either by an actual human being or a spam bot (Hello, Kyrgyzstan!). I wanted to tell you that I wrote 51,502 words in 72 blog posts, and there were 364 comments (131 by me in answers). I wanted to mention the fact that my Twitter followers grew by 1,050 percent (from about 50 a year ago to 525 as of Wednesday), and I wanted to write that I have no idea why that matters (if it does).
I wanted to write that there is so much to learn from other parenting bloggers, a community that I have come to genuinely love and thoroughly respect during the past year. There are gifted writers in that community who would make Hemingway and Fitzgerald weep over their inadequacies.
I was going to write all that, and I guess I did, in fact, write all that. But what I really want to say here is I’m going to keep doing this. I’m not sure what I’ll do here, what stories I’ll tell. I do know that there are some parenting issues that I’m increasingly interested in exploring and writing about, and I’ll do that here and for other websites. I also know that the “in real life” and “digital” friendships I’ve developed all over the country and the world will only strengthen as they mature.
I also will write shorter. I promise that. What I can’t promise is that I’ll write better, but I’ll try to do that, too. I want people to want to read this. I want it to be worth your time. I want my sons to read it one day. I want them to laugh. I want them to know me. I do want that. So, here’s to the year ahead. And all the years to come.
Thank you so much for reading my blob.
He came in at 5:30 a.m. to tell us about the bad dream. Something about snakes and people yelling and a long, dark hallway. I opened bleary eyes to see his trim, faintly alien, eerily elongated silhouette framed against the dim light coming through the doorway. Alien, because for a split second I thought I was Richard Dreyfus in Close Encounters having a … close encounter. Snakes? Screams?
“Wha … ?”
I jolted awake and checked the clock glowing red on MomScribe’s bedside table. That’s how I knew what time it was, and how I knew the alarm on my iPhone was due to go off in a half-hour. The Year of Disney would continue bright and early Sunday with a day trip to Animal Kingdom, the only park we didn’t hit the weekend before.
Only, it wouldn’t continue. Not Sunday, anyway. Moments after I sent the Bird back to his room to ruminate on the meaning of predawn discretion, MomScribe broke the news.
“I can’t go today,” she said. “I just don’t feel well.”
She went on to say it would be fine with her if I went ahead and took the boys to Animal Kingdom while she got some rest. I immediately told her no, because the Year of Disney is about all four of us making a lifetime’s worth of memories together. It’s a family thing. The whole family.
Still, I reconsidered once I got downstairs with the boys. The Mouse, 4, teared up when I broke the news that we wouldn’t be going. I tried to mollify him by reminding him that we’re doing another two-day adventure next weekend (yes, we are hardcore), and it would be here before we knew it.
Then I tossed out the suggestion that maybe we could go, anyway. Just the three of us. They were immediate, simultaneous and emphatic:
The Bird, 7, explained.
“Because, how would Mom feel if we went and had a good time without her?”
We ended up going to the mall instead, just me and the boys. We ate at Johnny Rockets and played in the game room. The Mouse won 1,000 tickets and they each picked out an armload of the finest plastic and rubber knickknacks China has to offer. Later, we went to Target and bought some training wheels for the bicycle the Bird got for Christmas, and I gave him a lesson in pedaling and braking.
MomScribe got her rest, and I had the pleasure of experiencing one of the real joys of being a dad. I found out that my boys, without any prompting from me, stood ready to make the kind of decision I’d hoped they’d make. They chose not to go on a wonderful adventure to a new, marvelous place because doing so Sunday would’ve robbed us of the experience of being there together. They chose family. They chose well.
Disney doesn’t have a monopoly on magical days.