Tag Archives: parenting

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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.

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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.

The Style Dad Council

I’ve been working out for a couple of months, with a consistency and determination I haven’t shown in many moons. I’ve also been trying to eat better, or at least not eat such enormous portions of things. My problem has never been snacking or eating much junk food. For the most part, I eat what you might call “good food,” it’s just that I have no real sense of proportion when I do. You know the saying “live every moment like it’s your last”? That’s what I do, except exclusively for meals.

By the end of last year, I was feeling truly horrible about my appearance and general well being. Stress plus lack of exercise conspired to make feel like absolute garbage. Making changes to my lifestyle was difficult, but I accepted that I’d reached an age where taking care of yourself means something different than it did when I was younger. Now that means, “eat salad for lunch every day” whereas ten years ago that meant “guess I won’t have that ninth taco.”

I’ve been pleased with the results thus far. My general energy levels and ability to not eat like a monster are much improved. As for my appearance, I think I look marginally better. But I also realize that there is a rigid ceiling to what I can achieve, appearance-wise. I could go on the Insanity regimen and I would still look like a Dad.

For the rest of my days I will look like someone whose every spoken word is greeted with a vigorous rolling of the eyes. That wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. After all, I am a dad and I like to think I’m as good at that as anything else I do. And maybe I’m finally growing into what I am. I’ve never known quite what to do with this thing that stumbles around below my brain, and every time I thought I might have half a clue, genetics have intervened.

I also have this odd condition I like to call anachronistic dysmorphia, wherein I can see pictures of myself from five years ago and think I look okay but can’t be happy with what I see in the mirror. “Why did I think I looked like crap then? I looked fine! But today, Jesus, I look like a bridge troll.”

In other words, the bar for what I expect from myself in the Looks Department is very low. And maybe looking Dad-Like is what I was meant to be all along. I should be okay with that. I would be okay with that, I think, if I didn’t live in New York City. Because there is a class of parent found in NYC that makes me feel powerfully inferior. I look like a normal dad, but I feel at times that I live in a city full of Style Dads.

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The Sub-Atomic World of Two Year Olds

Being a parent is hard. Everyone knows this, whether you have kids or not. But you can’t know the true depths of how difficult parenting is until you have a kid. Don’t mean to pull rank. It’s just true.

There’s no one particular thing about being a parent that takes Herculean effort. You get used to doing certain tasks very quickly. Feeding, dressing, burping–no big deal, any of them. Yes, you can even get accustomed to touching another human being’s feces on a regular basis. After a while, it’s not a big deal. To this day, I’m more grossed out by baby food than I am by baby poop.

What is a big deal is the fact that it never ends. There is no punching out. There is no weekend. You are on red alert 24/7, and anything you do–even if it’s the absolute right thing to do–may scar your child for life. It’s like being in a combat zone, only not so relaxing.

dragkid.pngI say this because I ran across a video yesterday that gave me pause, in which a mother drags her kid (who’s on a leash-type restraint) across the floor of store. Your reaction to it probably depends on whether you have a kid or not.

If you don’t have a kid, you are likely think this is HORRIBLE and INEXCUSABLE and this woman SHOULD BE LOCKED UP AND NEVER BE ALLOWED TO BREED AGAIN!!1! The state of Alabama agrees with you, because they’ve thrown this woman in jail and are threatening to take her child away from her.

If you do have a kid, you probably think: Yeah, she shouldn’t have done that. But…

Because every parent has been driven to a point where they’ve contemplated doing something like this. Or something in the same ballpark. If you say you’ve never thought about dragging your kid home, you either have a team of au pairs or you’re a fucking liar.

Especially if you have a two-year-old. That is a very special age where a child asserts his/her independence but cannot be reasoned with in any way. It’s impossible to completely placate a two-year-old, because their whims operate under the laws of quantum mechanics. Call it The Toddler Uncertainty Principle: The more you think you’ve pinned down what they want, the more likely it is those desires just shifted in a completely different direction.

Two-year-olds have no agenda but their own pleasure and chaos. It’s like living with The Joker.

All this video shows is 30 seconds of a mother reacting poorly. It doesn’t show all the events leading up to the mother’s meltdown. Maybe this kid ran around the store like a maniac and didn’t listen to a word his mother said. Maybe he hauled off and hit her when she said he couldn’t have some dumb fuckin’ plastic toy he wanted. Maybe she heeded every direction that came out his mouth, and he still screamed “I hate you!”

Yeah, two-year-olds do that all the time. If an adult made demand after demand of you, and you met every single one, and they said, “Guess what? I hate you!”, what would you do? You’d kick that person in the dick is what you’d do. It’s hard to turn off the “I’ve just been horribly insulted” impulse in your brain, even if it’s your own flesh and blood disrespecting you.

You may be inclined to say, “It’s the mother’s own fault for raising an unruly child.” Two-year-olds are unruly. There’s nothing more unruly in nature, not even the sub-atomic world. Scientists are still trying to figure out why this tiny universe operates in ways that seem to completely defy the laws of physics. And we still know more about quarks than we do about two-year-olds.

I don’t care how well you’ve raised your kid, how many Baby Einstein tapes you’ve bought, how many foreign language flash cards you zipped in front of their face. Once they hit a certain age, they turn into monsters. It doesn’t last forever, but it might feel like it does.

Also keep in mind that two-year-olds are prone to complete and total meltdowns that have no real solution. In those cases, the best thing to do is let your kid cry/kick/punch their way out of it (while making sure they don’t hurt themselves or others, of course). That may lead you to look callous or negligent to others–as I found out during a trip to the ER earlier this year.

But you know what? Fuck the rest of the world. As a parent, it’s not your job to satisfy some idealistic BS idea of what good parenting should look like. Anyone who hasn’t spent an entire day being screamed at by a two-year-old has no right to judge.

Say your kid is screaming because he wants candy. He hasn’t had any dinner yet, so you say no. He flips out, making you look like The World’s Worst Dad to everyone else in Duane Reade. You could get him some candy to keep him quiet, and that might make the situation less embarrassing for you.

But is that good parenting? Of course not, for a million different reasons. All you’d do is give your kid a lesson that if he screams loud enough, you’ll do anything he says. And for what? So you could look better for a bunch of people who don’t know you and who you’ll never see again. “I’ve turned my child into a sociopath, but at least that weird old lady with the support hose and the purple hair at the prescription counter stopped staring at me!”

Should this woman have dragged her kid? Of course not. But I don’t think she made a conscious decision to do that; she just snapped. And I totally understand how a person could snap like that. I hope her home state will see it that way (assuming this was just a moment of insanity for her).

Seeing this video made me think of Louis CK’s bit on parental meltdowns. “What did that shitty kid do to that poor woman?!”