Tag Archives: parenting

Greene Avenue, 1930

My grampa isn’t my grampa yet, so let’s call him Frank. Frank lives in Brooklyn or Queens, depending on what year it is. He doesn’t change his address, but the borough containing that address changes with the whims of city surveyors.

The subway is a recent addition to his neighborhood. The place is rapidly urbanizing, but there are still some signs of its small town past, like farms. A few small farms lie nearby, some only a few blocks away.

Thanksgiving is on the horizon, and Frank’s dad wants to take advantage of this proximity. He knows a farmer close by with more turkeys than he knows what to do with. Rather than drop way too much dough on a bird from the butcher, Frank’s dad figures he can buy one of these young turkeys, raise it in his backyard, and get it nice and fat in time for the big holiday. He doesn’t have a very big backyard, but how much room does a turkey need, really? All they do is eat and sleep. He’s seen neighbors raise chickens and roosters in their backyards. A turkey can’t be any harder.

This calculation doesn’t take into account Frank, and his sister Kathy. Once the turkey comes home and takes up residence in the backyard, they look upon it not as a future meal, but a pet. Frank and Kathy bring it scraps from the dinner table. They pet it and play with it, even though the concept of “play” seems too complex for a turkey to grasp. They name him Tom.

This presents a dilemma for Frank’s dad. He knows the kids are attached to the turkey and don’t want to see it slaughtered. He is inclined by nature to make them happy. He is not the whip-cracking type of dad, but a sentimental sort, a lover of pranks, a story teller. He ushers at St. Aloysius on Sundays, then goes from church straight to The Eagle’s Nest to bartend and exchange jokes.

Frank’s dad is also a Great War veteran. He served in France to display his patriotism at a time when the propaganda of the age said the True Americanism of anyone of German descent was suspect, a time. And it is 1930, which means Frank’s dad is a dad at the beginning of the Great Depression. He cannot afford to simply throw away food, even food whose name is Tom.

So despite his fun-loving, accommodating nature, Frank’s dad takes the turkey, chops its head off, plucks it, and hands the carcass off to Frank’s mom, who will cook it.

If the idea behind killing the bird was to not waste food, this proves poor reasoning. Frank’s mom and dad eat, but Frank and Kathy do not. They sit in their seats at the dinner table and stare at pieces of what was once their pet and burst out crying, wailing “oh, Tom…” Frank’s dad sees no point in berating his children, but reminds them that this is all the food they have. They can eat this on Thanksgivng or eat nothing. They choose nothing.

Frank will become my grampa and he will tell me this story, and in his telling it will be a funny story. He will imitate his young self crying over a turkey and laugh at the memory. He will have gone to war in a strange land, just like his father, and will come home in one piece and have to raise children on a tight budget, like his father. In his rearview, the plight of a turkey will come to seem like small potatoes.

You could call this cold or cruel, but I know my grampa was not a cold or cruel man. Just the opposite, just like his own father. Grampa just knew that parenting requires difficult decisions, and in a no-win situation, perhaps laughter is called for.

I believe that today of all days, if you can use your childhood pain not for brooding, but for laughing, then you should be thankful.

Bedtime

“Why can’t you go to the movies tomorrow?” she asks.

“Because I have to work,” I say. “Your school has the day off, but my office doesn’t.”

“You have to go and write books?”

“No, that’s not my job.”

She fixes me with a quizzical look. When I lock myself away to write at home, I often tell her I have to work. I now realize this has led her to think writing is what I do for my job-job. For a moment I believe I’ve disappointed her, but really I’ve only disappointed myself.

“I don’t get paid to write,” I explain. “I do it in my free time.”

“You write for fun?”

“It’s not really fun, but…”

“You should make a book of your stories. Like, from your life. They’re funny!”

“What would you put in that book?”

The Salty Dog story, and, um…I don’t know, but they’re funny. You should tell more people your stories and get paid for that and that would be your job instead.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

“Why not?”

A million things spring to mind, a million things that stab and bubble inside my brain all day when I’m away from her, at my “real” job, but I can say none of them. Not to her.

“Well…It’s very hard to make a living as a writer, and people don’t seem too interested in the things I want to…”

“Battery roll!”

“What?”

Battery roll, that’s another good story you have.”

“Yeah, I like that one, too. I don’t think anybody wants a book about this stuff.”

“Then make something else with it.”

“Like what?”

*shrug*

“Alright, under the covers now. I love you.”

“Say ‘don’t let the bed bugs bite’,” she commands.

“Don’t let the bed bugs bite,” I say.

Click.

Ishmael vs. Ahab vs. Jean Shepherd vs. Myself: One Night Only!

To my father, the height of art was Jean Shepherd reading poetry. Shepherd often read poetry on his radio show–performed it, really, as vaudevillians once did with famous verse of their day. The poems could be genuinely great writing like classic Japanese haikus, or melodramatic slop like “A Drunkard’s Dream.” He made no distinction between high and low art, and recited both with equal fervor.

Of all the poems Shepherd read on the air, my father loved most his reading of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” He spoke of it rapturously, as people often do of things they know they’ll never see or hear again, and was fond of repeating the poem’s last line, in a Shepherd-esque low, For the snark was a boojum, you see…

I’ve been listening to old Jean Shepherd radio shows for well over a decade now, ever since new interweb technology allowed people to digitize their old reel-to-reels of his broadcasts. And yet, it was only some time last week, while listening to one of these shows on my commute home, that I realized I’d never heard Shepherd’s rendition of “The Hunting of the Snark.” My father always spoke as if this was something Shepherd did regularly, and yet I’d never heard it? I felt personally insulted, as if the thing was hiding just to screw with my head, and determined I must find it.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that Shepherd read this poem annually in the early 1960s. But when I searched The Brass Figlagee—an enormous cache of Shepherd shows in podcast form—I found nothing. The fansite Flicklives.com has listings for a few programs from 1962 and 1963 whose titles fit the bill, but none of these are available in any form (begging the question how anyone knows the content of these shows in the first place). Max Schmid, a DJ at WBAI and old time radio enthusiast, has literally hundreds of Shepherd shows available for sale, but near as I can tell, none of them contain The Snark.

I plumbed the depths of the internet for days, poking around the scary corners where I sometimes venture looking for old baseball games on DVD, into long-dead Angelfire sites and LiveJournal pages. No dice. I begged on various social media, hoping someone would know what I was talking about, and received some helpful suggestions and offers of help but no paydirt. I pursued dead ends far longer than I should have, unable to convince myself that this thing was lost to the mists of time.

I couldn’t bring myself to concede defeat, though, at least not entirely. Since I couldn’t find this recording for love or money, I convinced myself to do something I’m almost too embarrassed to write down: Record a reading myself. My insane thought was, if all the Shepherd versions were lost forever, perhaps I could do a rendering that would approximate the feel and intent of the original, or at least what I imagine the original was like. It was such a idiotic and childish notion, I simply had to do it.

Continue reading Ishmael vs. Ahab vs. Jean Shepherd vs. Myself: One Night Only!

True Parenting Terror

I keep seeing ads for the impending movie What to Expect When You’re Expecting. (Movies like that aren’t “upcoming;” they’re “impending,” like doom.) As with any other Jennifer Lopez vehicle, this shouldn’t warrant mentioning. And yet, I bristle each time I see this film advertised, because it’s in the mold of movies that try to tap into Parenting Fear but get it completely wrong. In fact, it seems to originate from–and be aimed at–people who haven’t the slightest idea of what 99.9% of parents actually worry about.

The folks responsible for this movie may very well have kids, and they may think they have a parent audience in mind, but the ads are filled with “jokes” about things that do not worry actual parents: changings, feedings, sleeping, and so on. I imagine there has to be an awesome “exploding diaper” scene in it, along with a birthing sequence where the mom gets mad at the dad for “doing this” to her. Not to get all Culture Wars on you here, but I suspect that most Hollywood types fear these things because they have au pairs who take care of these menial tasks. And because their level of economic comfort shields them from the real terror that most parents confront on a daily basis.

Before you have kids, you have fears that recede almost immediately once you become a parent. You fret that you won’t be able to deal with dirty diapers or midnight feedings or temper tantrums, because these are the things that TV and movies tell us are the real trials of parenting. In real life, it all comes much easier than you could ever imagine. You will be amazed by how quickly you become blasé about handling another human’s feces on a regular basis. Sleep deprivation sucks, but that too becomes part of your existence, and you deal with it because you love your child and this is what your life demands now.

This is not the most terrifying part of being a parent. Not by a long shot.

The real terror comes from realizing how insanely expensive it is to raise a child. And I’m not talking about the my-child-deserves-the-best accoutrements like onesies knit by blind Sherpas and organic hemp bottles. I mean the bare minimum of what your child needs to live costs a god damn fortune.

It’s not changing diapers that worries parents–it’s how much the diapers cost, and how often they must be replenished. It’s not feedings that worry parents–it’s the fact that formula runs more per ounce than uranium. It’s not your kid freaking out at the doctor or the dentist that worries you–it’s the fact that all those doctor visits add up, even if you’re fortunate enough to health insurance.

Now you must find a way to pay for all this, on top of rent, car, insurance, utilities, food, and the intermittent one-time costs that inevitably pop up because the universe tends toward entropy. And if you work a full-time job to pay for all these things, you must leave your child with marginally qualified strangers all day, which also costs an arm and a leg and inevitably introduces your child to horrible language/habits that you will never, ever, ever be able to correct, which of course means that you are a terrible parent.

I’ve never laid in bed at 3am wondering how I’m going to change a diaper or get my kid to eat her vegetables. I have enjoyed many sleepless nights worrying if I could pay for those diapers and vegetables, or fretting that there was some Very Vital Payment I’d forgotten to make that could doom us all. This may just be my own hangup, having grown up poor, but it has always felt to me like the margin separating us all from living on the street was razor thin.

And that’s when I’ve had a job. Since my child was born, I’ve been laid off twice. I’m working now, but in this economy and the industry I work in (publishing), the specter of a pink slip is always there. If I was unemployed for an extended period of time…just thinking of it in the abstract makes me break out in a cold sweat.

Here is a terror I think every parent has experienced–if not exactly in this manner, then in some parallel way: You leave a party late at night, knowing there’s a long drive to get home. You buckle your kid in the backseat, and she falls asleep within seconds as you predicted/hoped. After a valiant effort to stay awake and keep you company, your wife falls asleep too. And it dawns on you that the reason they fell asleep is they trust you. There is not a doubt in any of their minds that you will get them to your destination safe and sound. And you’ve always held their lives in your hands to some extent, but it was never more stark than it was at the moment. And you think to yourself, People I love are counting on me to not fuck all this up, and “this’ = EVERYTHING.

Make a movie about that, Hollywood.

Baby’s First Brooklyn Moment

On Sunday morning, me and the family took a brief trip into Greenpoint to pick up some gardening supplies and to stroll. I lived in Greenpoint for six pre-kid years and I still love it there, though I don’t find many chances to make it back to ye olde neighborhood.

When I called it home, Greenpoint struck me as having the exact amount of artsy-ness that Williamsburg aspired to while being a tad more real, for lack of a better word. For one thing, Greenpoint never needed to “recover” in the way that Williamsburg did, since it had a well-entrenched middle class that never left in bad old days of the 1970s and 1980s. On top of that, it seemed like the artists in Greenpoint actually had jobs and weren’t being held aloft by trust funds. This was provincial prejudice I’m sure, because it still wasn’t hard to find a wealthy dilettante among the populace, someone who seemed to be dabbling in bohemia until Dad’s Law Firm came calling. These folks tended to be the ones most into juvenalia like kickball tournaments and organized games of manhunt, since they had the idle time and total lack of worries necessary to waste in such pointless pursuits.

As I said, we were strolling through Greenpoint, on Nassau Street near Lorimer, where McCarren Park ends. Ahead of us, I saw a twenty-something swinging from scaffolding like it was a jungle gym. At a certain age and in a certain mood, I could have found this kind of thing is cute. In fact, I’m sure I’ve done the same at some point in my life, though I’m also sure I haven’t done so since college. To mid-30s Dad Me, it just struck me as juvenile, embodying the worst aspect of all the dumb infantile things people think of when they now think of Brooklyn. My mind voiced a judgmental Really?, but I said nothing out loud.

My daughter was less guarded. Our corner of Queens holds very few hipsters, and this was not a specimen she’d encountered before. “Why is that GROWN UP swinging like that?” she asked, very loudly. I saw this guy as a kid, because that’s how he was behaving, but to my child, everyone over the age of 10 is a Grown Up, and this was conduct unbecoming a Grown Up. The Swinger abruptly stopped, somewhat embarrassed, and continued on his way, as did we.

“Grown ups shouldn’t be acting like that,” my daughter said, again very loudly and slightly annoyed, as we passed by The Swinger.

“I agree,” I said, and I felt confident that I’d already given her enough information to tell the Real Grown Ups from the fake ones.