Paging Lewis Hine: found this in the September JCrew Catalog. Because there's nothing like a $385 Cashmere sweater woven in a three gauge knit by an eleven-year-old Pakistani kid to make your precocious youngster look just like his nine-year-old great-great-grandpa did after a long day working at the mill in 1902.
Three months ago my wife went back to work and I was left all alone with the two kids. At first I felt overwhelmed and certain I wouldn't last more than a couple weeks. But now, whatever: it's the new normal. A lot of people consider the idea of staying home with a preschooler and an infant terribly daunting and ask me how I do it. Christ, it's not like I survived the Spanish Civil War or a Sudanese refugee camp. Sure I have less time for "me" and it's more difficult to get anything done. But I'd like to think the human spirit is malleable enough to survive famines, depressions, and even, someday, Armageddon. Yeah, I think I can survive two kids. Save your pity for John and Kate Plus 8. A day in that household looks more like the Apocalypse than mine ever does.
Yesterday afternoon I dropped our daughter off for a playdate with her best friend and wandered around for a couple hours with eighteen pounds of baby boy strapped to my chest. So light and easy without that other set of hands constantly searching for one of mine to hold, that other mouth constantly hungry, or thirsty, that other little brain always bored. There was no need to worry about him running into the path of a car or picking some neighbor's beloved flowers. He got tired and I fed him a bottle: that artifice of a breast which is all I can give him. He always takes it greedily with brown eyes full of wonder and gratitude locked with mine so filled with love, I know. His hands reach up to me in the quiet of those moments to find my own hand on the bottle or maybe brush across my cheek. I pretend to nibble on those tiny fingers and a smile spreads around the nipple. Our thrice-daily joke. When he was three months old I would put him to sleep by sitting next to him and slowly, methodically closing my eyes and yawning in a pantomime of serious exhaustion. After a few suggestive shuts-and-opens I'd see his own lids heavy, and then finally close. It was just that easy.
Now we have a new routine: a sister distracted with markers and a giant pad of paper, new songs, a rhythm of my hand against his back. Now he is almost ready to hold his bottle by himself, and I know I will miss holding it for him even though it will make my days easier. Over the course of an afternoon without his sister, I am reminded of how easy he is, how simple his needs are. But those needs are always growing and changing. And we always adapt.
So many people say, when you go from one to two, that it's "two times the kids but ten times the work." That's not true. That's just something mildly clever and easy to say.
It's not that two kids are ten times more work than one, it's that having two makes you lose perspective on how hard it was to go from none to one. Your daughter spends an afternoon with a friend or a night with her grandmother, and suddenly you've lost your ballast. Suddenly there is no gravity. You could tango with your wife with a baby bjorned between you, you feel so free. The very idea of freedom has morphed into something your pre-parent self would not recognize, something from which he would turn away in horror.
And then the playdate ends. Grandma brings her home. And everything returns to normal.
When my wife gets home from work, I see the basement suddenly with her eyes. It looks the third story of a tiny Hong Kong alleyway, with crisscrossing clotheslines filled with drying clothes.
"I don't need to guess what you guys did today."
"We tie-dyed, mama!" the kid says from somewhere inside the rows of color-streaked clothing.
It looks like we were the official laundry of the Annual Willie Nelson Family Picnic. It looks like Kate Hudson donated to us all the shirts she'd been given by that ex-husband from the Black Crowes.
"We're not going to Burning Man, are we?" My wife asks with genuine fear, looking at my hands. From the wrist down I am a smurf.
I suppose we did get a little carried away. When the kid realized she could turn even more of her wardrobe pink, we completely eliminated the color white from her closet. We even tie-dyed some of Wood's white t-shirts. "I'm sorry," I tell her.
"It's okay," she says. "But if I ever walk in on you listening to The Dave Matthews Band, I may have to divorce you."
Today is our fifth anniversary; I spent all week and a trip to Hollander's under the delusion that the fifth was the paper anniversary. I discovered it was "wooden" too late to get any whittlin' done. But miraculously I am all showered, with aftershave and cologne. And despite of a recent bout of Amishness, I am wearing a shirt with actual buttons, bespoke in Pisa on our honeymoon. And it still fits. Tonight we are leaving the house without children for the first time in more than a year, and planning to dine on extravagantly-priced seafood and talk about it like how we imagine Gail Simmons and Tom Collichio might. I would use this moment to get all romantic and write about how much I love my wife, but ewww, there are too many people listening. Instead: one of the funniest comedy sketches of all time:
I'm ready for round two, baby. Where the orphan points double.
You've got a daughter who loves apples. You should be coming up on the greatest time of the year: u-pick season. But with gas prices being what they are and none of the orchards yet advertising ripe honeycrisps---the black-tar heroin of the pomaceous fruit world---you're pretty much left with last year's Fujis from the Apple Pirate at the farmer's market who rapes and pillages your wallet at 50 cents per apple each weekend. Unless, of course, you're a stay-at-home dad with nothing better to do than go for a lot of walks and notice quite a few rotting apples in certain spots around the neighborhood. And you look up.
A tree filled with golden delicious. A few paces over, a tree bursting with small, ripe pears. Just over the fence of that apartment building are two McIntosh trees, both with unripened fruit.
You walk around the neighborhood all morning. When you find another one, you tie the dog up, leave the kids on the ground and disappear for a moment into a tree, coming down with pockets full of Gravensteins, hands as full as they can be without risking a fall. You shake a limb and one newtons you on the head. She laughs. You walk from secret tree to secret tree, and she tells you when she grows up she is going to be an artist and a farmer.
You tell her that would make you very proud.
You're both picking low-hanging golden delicious when you hear the voice of a middle-aged black man: "Goddamn motherfucking cocksucking motherfuckers!" he grumbles. You assume an eagle-claw kung fu stance to protect your merry band of apple thieves. "Shithead dirtbag saladtossing cockweed motherfuckers. . ." he continues. He's standing next to a red Mercury, its passanger-side window smashed. There's glass all over the sidewalk. Just another hard lesson about Detroit: don't leave a quarter visible in your cupholder, or a crackhead will smash a window for it.
Even with apples worth twice as much growing ripe in the trees above them.
Sometimes I yearn for the past, back before children's books about handicaps were all politically correct namby-pamby BS about how everyone is the same even if they look a little different. Back in the day, you could buy a book about a boy who's dad has had just about enough of him sticking his hand in the family sausage grinder, so he drags him down to the local hardware store to meet a creepy old WWII vet who can teach him a thing or to about sticking your arm into dangerous places, like Nazi-occupied France. And back in 1974, they sure understood it was important not to skimp on the details:
And then, just in case awkwardly discussing the one-armed man's feelings over boxes of wood screws and hanging extension cords doesn't really have the gravitas you'd hoped it would, you seal the deal by making your son act like a man: you make him shake the hook.
Matthew won't be putting his hand in the sausage grinder anymore, I reckon.
I made it almost three decades before I tried coffee. What 5:00 a.m. high school ice hockey practices, late-night undergraduate typing marathons, law school, and four years as an associate in a big law firm couldn't accomplish, parenthood did. It was my nocturnally fickle spawn that finally drove me to the evil bean. It started with a sip here and there from the 7:00 a.m. lattes I would get my sleeping wife with my infant daughter who woke up at 5:30 a.m. every day. That led to the occasional late-afternoon double espresso if I had something to do at night other than pass out watching Ghost Hunters.
Now that I'm no longer working, the highlight of every day has become devising what kind of combination of ground beans, dairy and sugar I'm going to use to deliver caffeine to my central nervous system. Even though my wife definitely lets me sleep more than she does, it doesn't matter: I'm officially addicted now. Without morning coffee I get The Headache.
I don't know why I never consumed coffee before now. I have never liked the idea of being addicted to something. I've never smoked a cigarette either, but at least that makes sense: absolutely everything about smoking cigarettes is fucking disgusting. I know smokers claim nicotine makes you feel great, just as coffee drinkers always tout the virtues of caffeine. Coffee tastes pretty disgusting too, but at least you can order it at Starbucks as a milkshake. If someone were to come up with a way to deliver the pleasure of smoking a cigarette in milkshake form, I'd probably try it.
My resistance to coffee was really just another of my stupid youthful abstentions, along with alcohol and sideburns and everything else those Mormons I hung out with back in high school told me was wrong. I viewed the local independent coffee shop with suspicion: it was a smokey place where people played chess and pretended they'd read Nietzsche. Now I look back on all those years and wonder about what I could have accomplished if I'd had the good sense to grow addicted to this wonderdrug.
It probably didn't help that I've always associated the taste of coffee with the burnt smell of my mom's morning Folger's crystals. I'm not some kind of coffee snob. I've never lived in the Pacific Northwest. I don't stand around in line at the Gourmet food store debating whether to hand roast a pound of green Guatamalan El Injerto or just buy some Fair Trade Kenyan AA for my Jasper Morrison coffeemaker. Our neighborhood coffee shop went out of business a few months ago and some people were pressuring me to take over the failing business ("After all, you're not doing anything. . ."), but my taste for coffee is pretty much the same as my wife's taste for alcohol back when we first met: this was a woman who would plug her nose to do six shots of vodka and then chug a Jack Daniels Lynchburg Lemonade through a beer bong. Any coffee shop owned by me would only serve sugary ice cream drinks blended with three (or more) shots of espresso. So with the only coffee shop on the near east side of Detroit (a Starbucks) slated for closure, we have actually been going there several times a week, certain that the next time we drive past there's going to be plywood over the drive-thru window and crackheads pushing shopping carts filled with twisted espresso machine parts towards the nearest scrap metal yard.
But the last few times she's made Starbucks run, my wife has refused to order my drink of choice. "What's wrong?" I ask her.
"When I order your Venti Java Chip Frappaccino Light but with Whipped Cream and the chocolate drizzle I feel like such a girl."
I have had no problem ordering one for myself. Have you ever tried one of those things? But the other day I saw her point. After getting my morning frap I was rolling with my homies Steve Inskeep and Renée Montagne when I pulled up to a red light right next to a road worker resting up against a large piece of yellow construction equipment. He was holding a simple styrofoam cup into which he delicately poured one of those little paper thimbles of cream and then a single sugar packet. A styrofoam cup of Joe for a regular Joe. I sat there and sipped crushed ice through the straw of my Venti Java Chip Frappaccino Light but with Whipped Cream and the chocolate drizzle.
I felt like Liberace in a Volkswagen.
About halfway through yesterday's run I looked down and realized that in this unusually cool August weather I'd dressed my children like castoffs from a Wes Anderson movie. The whole pink cowgirl thing came about because her entire closet is monochromatic and her Nana bought her that hat at the county fair and her current favorite record is the one with cowboy songs that I have to sing every night before she'll go to sleep. Duh. I am afraid I am solely responsible for the little retiree plucked away from his afternoon shuffleboard game in Sarasota for this photograph. He had to take a nap before that early-evening canasta tournament, anyway, plus I believe he needed a change of undergarments.
The thing is, I hate Wes Anderson movies (and not just because I'm supposed to like them). I particularly hate that one with the Wilson brothers and the quirky costumes and the shimmery vintage-pop soundtrack and Bill Murray. . .
. . .the one with all the former child prodigies? I don't care at all for stories about child prodigies---no matter how quirky they might be. The tortured former child prodigy is as much a Hollywood cliche as the hooker with the heart of gold or the unattractive Jew who wins over the shiksa bombshell with his acerbic wit. I pretty much loathe former child prodigies. I never enjoyed J.D. Salinger's lesser works, even though some people have gone so far as to name their children after his annoying whiz kids. I have never been all that impressed by 8-year-old chess geniuses, precocious preteen spelling bee finalists, or 3-year-old North Korean xylophone prodigies. I don't care that Mozart was composing operettas while his colleagues were still shitting their pantaloons. I do not think the stories of child prodigies are inspiring, endearing, sad, tragic, or interesting in any way.
I try to imagine how many "child prodigies" have languished in normal childhoods because they had the misfortune of being born to parents who never encouraged them in some singular esoteric pursuit. And how many potentially brilliant young beekeepers never found their calling because their parental oppressors kept them too busy with violin lessons? Inevitably, every child prodigy stops being a child and suffers a fate of normalcy. Unless he continues to perform at a prodigious level above his peers as an adult, there's really nothing all that special about him, is there (other than the fact that he was once a child prodigy)? And really, who wants to hear about all that now that everything has evened out? Shut the fuck up about it already.
Consider young Richard Sandrak. After a steady diet of testosterone-flavored gummi vitamins provided by the two cruel Visigoths he considered parents, 5-year-old Sandrak and his soloflex physique did the Povich-Jones-Montel circuit as "Little Hercules," the world's strongest preschooler. Now he's sixteen and looks like the drummer for Ukrainian Hanson. In five years when he's just another musclebound narcissist chugging protein shakes outside the Pasadena Bally Total Fitness, do you think he's going to get laid by telling chicks he was once Little Hercules? Unless he dons a lionskin, destroys a hydra, and fetches an apple from the garden of the Hesperides, I don't think he's ever going to get laid.
Consider also today's news that 8-year-old blues guitar prodigy Tallan "T-Man" Latz may no longer be able to play in bars and clubs because of child labor laws. What business does an 8-year-old have playing the blues anyways? Did a bully steal his lunch money? Did somebody poop in the gated-community swimming pool? What business does an 8-year-old have making that face? Or wearing those sunglasses? Sorry T-Man, I guess it's time to write the Wisconsin State Equal Rights Commission Blues. It could be all about those spoiled 6-year-old coal miners and oyster shuckers back in the olden times responsible for these ridiculous child labor laws. In twenty years I hope you're more than just another loser in a Sheen-shirt playing Satriani covers in a strip mall bar & grille and singing songs about your glory days as an 8-year-old blues-rock phenom. But I wouldn't bet on it.
I'm pretty sure that neither one of my children is any kind of genius or prodigy. For one thing, I never bought them any of those Baby Genius DVDs. I don't drill letters or numbers into their heads. I once tried to show Juniper how to spell 'cat' with some foam bathtub letters but she just showed me how to make the letters look like an actual cat. Kind of. We have no French au pair for full immersion language acquisition: just me (and today Juniper asked me what 'ain't' means). But if I were to discover, say, that my son was some kind of handball wizard or my daughter a theremin virtuoso, I would probably hush it up and not make a big deal about it. I wouldn't do this out of concern for the loss of childhood or the pressures of fame. I would do it to save them from the inevitable turd of having to tell everyone they meet in the distant future that they were once child prodigies, or god forbid, "gifted and talented."
I mean, they're going to have it hard enough as it is. Just look at their clothes.
I would have thought the hardest part about knowing my mom now reads this website would be the self-censorship: the things I would stop writing about because I wouldn't want to shock or embarrass her. Well, the truth is the hardest part about my mom reading it is the mail that came a week after I wrote this: "I consider my closet full of t-shirts and blue jeans and bemoan the fact that most turn-of-the-century hobos dressed with more dignity than I do. I am basically an overgrown toddler. If they made onesies for adults, I'd probably wear them." Inside the package from my mom was a note:
"It has been a long time since I bought you underwear. . . These were $1.00 at Shipshewana. Thought you might like them."
I'd try it on for you myself, but it's a 42L, and unfortunately I'm a 38R. I like my onesies snug.
Before the kids, we had such plans for parenting, most of them typical anti-establishment punk rock malarkey. I remember some ridiculous notion about never taking my kids into stores or malls so they would never learn to treat shopping as an activity of leisure. I have no idea what anti-materialism-crusader-dickhead Jim of 2004 planned to do with his kids when he needed to get them new shoes or, you know, groceries; all I know is that actual-parent Jim of 2008 has taken his kids on plenty of leisurely shopping excursions. He may have even used trips to the toy store as incentive for good behavior. He's not proud of it, but in certain grocery stores this has been an act of necessity. Survival, even. Anti-materialism-crusader-dickhead Jim of 2004 would almost certainly approve of our move from San Francisco to Detroit, however, because it doesn't really have any stores. Detroit has liquor stores, sure. And dollar stores. And witchcraft supply stores. But there are no big box stores. No malls. Detroit is not the kind of place where you can meander through tree-lined neighborhoods popping into tastefully-curated boutiques. We don't do a lot of window shopping. Most stores here don't have windows; those that do quickly learn to obstruct them with heavy steel bars.
The suburbs aren't much better for the leisurely sort of shopping we enjoyed in San Francisco. People in metro Detroit scratch their heads and don't know what to do if there's not a parking spot within twenty paces of any storefront; they might die of starvation with vultures picking away at their ribcages should they have to park in one of the ten-thousand parking spots beyond that twenty pace distance. I have seen people get in cars parked in front of a Target and drive fifty feet to park closer to the entrance of a Best Buy. These are the same people, I assume, who consider Applebee's their neighborhood grill and bar.
So when we do go shopping, we usually make it a full-day balls-out trip to the yuppie hellhole of Ann Arbor. Don't get me wrong: I lived there for three years. It's my kind of yuppie hellhole. But by the end of any day in Ann Arbor I am ranting about artisanal cheeses and $14.00 pastrami sandwiches and arthouse theaters and liberal bumper sticker philosophies I agree with in theory but which slowly turn me into a steaming pile of self-hatred. I can only tolerate being surrounded by pricks just like me for so long, you see. I need to stop at the Livonia Applebee's on the way home just to recover.
Whenever we arrive in Ann Arbor, though, we're always excited: "Look! A store that doesn't rely on a steady clientele of morning drunks or women who were in epic weave-pulling, nail-splitting catfights the night before!" Juniper has started to pick up on our excitement while perusing aisles of clothes that weren't donated to the Salvation Army after a compulsive hoarder died and no one wanted them at the estate sale. My daughter is now fully aware that not all clothing starts out smelling like mildew and chain-smoking pubic lice, and this vexes me. "That nice smell," I tell her. "It's all chemicals. If they didn't cover them in chemicals, new clothes would smell like the tears of work-weary Honduran widows."
Everywhere we went in Ann Arbor this past Sunday, she wanted me to buy her something. This has never really happened in Detroit, so I was inclined to oblige her. Anti-materialism-crusader-dickhead Jim of 2004 died a little more with each purchase. First it was just a zombie finger puppet and a bag full of chocolate coins, but then it was a pink vinyl Mini Munny and a new pair of girly moccasins. Then we went into a yuppie toy store, the kind with a lot of wooden toys imported from countries with universal health care and at least one recognizable brand of carbonated mineral water. This was where I discovered the display of Schleich and Papo figures.
We've had some Schleich animals before but I had no idea about the historical and mythological series of figures. This is where the story turns from Jim-the-annoying-elitist-hipster buying his kid whatever she wants so long as it's not adorned with one of those beast-loving Mexican preschoolers to the story of a 31-year-old man trying to convince his 3-year-old daughter that she wants an entire army of 4-inch plastic Roman legionnaries to wage war on those uppity bog farmers in transapline Gaul.
There are very few times that a man of Dutch heritage will pull out his debit card and say, "Have a go." This was one of them. Our friends at Schleich and Papo are not paying me to write this (although if anyone at Papo is reading: we could use another legion or three to reinforce the Thirteenth against this pesky Asterix fellow, stat). For all I know Schleich and Papo round up Cantonese street urchins and force them to paint figurines all day for 17 yuan in vast factories under the watchful eye of whip-cracking Teutonic supervisors. I don't care. These toys are awesome. They could be painted with pure lead and dipped in liquid mercury and I'd still think they were awesome. We bought some fairies, dragons, witches, girl pirates, wizards, Pegasus, Cerberus, a minotaur, a centaur, and even a griffin. I justified the expense by saying to myself that these toys require imagination and aren't part of the modern children's media clusterfuck.
Yeah. . .right.
When it reached the point in the toy store where Juniper had moved on to a display of those phlegmatic British train engines and I was still trying to get her interested some equestrian elf, I realized these toys weren't really for her. They were, of course, for me. I found myself teetering over that dangerous precipice any full-grown adult buying himself toys must face. On one side lies self-respect. On the other, a fanboy paradise of Comic-cons and men beckoning to me in adult-sized Imperial Stormtrooper costumes. The handing over of a debit card in exchange for an armful of wizards, fairies, and Knights Templar, is the first step, I think, towards Ye Olde Renaissance Faire. Might as well just get out the Singer and sew myself a doublet and a pair of breeches.
When my wife saw the bag stuffed with molded-PVC Roman soldiers, I justified it as a business expense. I figured that if I am going to stay home playing with these kids all day, we might as well reenact the Battle of Pharsalus, you know, but with fairies and dragons and saucy pirate wenches. And probably a mermaid dancing with a centurion who sometimes rides Pegasus into battle.
Shut up. It could have happened.
"One of my first memories is taking a nap on a waterbed at a babysitter's house."
"What ever happened to waterbeds? Does anyone still have a waterbed?"
"There was a skylight in the room and a man up on the roof fixing it. He kept making scary faces at me. It was very traumatic."
"Maybe we should get a waterbed."
"They smell like hairy shower curtains."
"Most of my earliest memories are of visiting my dad after the divorce. I guess those memories stick out more than all the normal days I spent with my mom."
"All I really remember are small traumas or separations. Like how after a night of good sleep, you only recall details from the one nightmare."
"It hardly seems fair."
"Fair? If you're talking about parenthood, I don't think fairness ever really gets to be a part of the equation."