The Prone Boy

I see the prone boy sometimes when I close my eyes, his red t-shirt hiked up to reveal his soft belly, his rump slightly raised like my daughter’s when she sleeps. But the prone boy is not sleeping; he is dead, face down on a beach in Turkey.

I saw his picture when it came out a couple years ago — I think; I can’t remember — but had no reference point for it. He was a Syrian child (I had no children and had never been to Syria), dead (I had minimal experience with death) on a beach in Turkey (another country I had never been to). The only thing that’s changed since then is that I now have a child. I’ve traveled but haven’t been to either of those countries (or anywhere in the middle east), and though I’ve gotten older, and thus increased my proximity to it, I don’t feel any better acquainted with death. The other thing that’s changed is that we now have a president who doesn’t give a shit about non-Americans (or most Americans, for that matter). But anyway, I’ve got a daughter, so now I can better imagine it — a child dead, drowned, on a beach.

Childless (child-free? unchilded?) people hate this premise I’m working with — “you don’t have children, so you just don’t know, can’t understand” — and they’re right to hate it; it’s sanctimonious, but it’s true for me. When I didn’t have a child, I didn’t know, and now I know. I have been yanked sideways into a world in which I can imagine all the unimaginable things that can happen to a child.

For us parents (if I may speak for us) the prone boy represents our deepest fear: that we cannot keep our children from the worst that life has to offer. Parenting is hard enough (for me at least) in an affluent country that has many parental support structures (let’s leave aside the topic of paid parental leave for the moment, Ivanka); I can’t imagine how hard it is in a country ravaged by war, death loitering at every turn. Or, actually, I do imagine it all the time. On the subway: I’ve got Poe strapped to my chest, and a deranged man (always a man) pulls out a gun and starts firing. Do I kick the gun out of his hands or turn and face the corner, the bullets going into my back instead of into Poe? In the street: I launch myself, knocking Poe out of the way and taking the full brunt of the oncoming bus myself. During societal breakdown: Alexis and I walk across the George Washington Bridge and down to Hoboken to her parents. I defend us from marauders with the knives we got as a wedding gift (I have already picked out the two that will give me the most heft and ease). But these are action movie fantasies divorced from the true horrors that life constantly dishes out in countries on the other side of the world.

I cannot show the picture of the prone boy to Alexis. I don’t think I’m underestimating her when I say she couldn’t handle it. As it is, she gets this wary, panicked look when I start in on any story involving harm to children, like she might rather jump out the window or knock me unconscious than hear about it. Maybe she has seen the picture. I don’t know. We don’t talk about it.

Much has been made of the picture of the prone boy by the public. His family was trying to migrate to Canada, and his death (or the picture of his corpse, actually) set off a far-reaching national conversation about refugees and may have had a hand in the election of the dreamy Justin Trudeau, a politician who seems to have been created by a computer to make us feel even worse about our American president (if that’s possible). Justin Trudeau is Luke Skywalker to Trump’s Jabba the Hutt (America is Princess Leia in this scenario). Donald Trump is a disgusting, cretinous piece of shit is what I’m ultimately getting at.

Others have, bafflingly, taken issue with the photo as manipulative, as propaganda. As if the truth has a political bias. And yet, there’s a point in there. Should one photo dictate national policy? Probably not. The world has had refugee problems for eons and one photo of a boy face down on the beach, the surf advancing to touch his hair, his skin, belies the complicated nature of immigration, no matter how evocative the photo is. Much smarter people than I spend their lives thinking about this sort of thing, but allow me to dig in for a moment.

Let’s get extremely obvious: immigration, like most ideas that have ramifications in the real world, lies in a grey area between two extremes. We can’t bar everyone from entering our country: besides being impossible, it would be unthinkably cruel. But we can’t let everyone in either. I can’t seem to find a concrete number of attempted immigrants to the U.S. (hey, this is a blog, not a journalistic publication like Breitbart) but let’s presume it’s a rather large number. The U.S. currently has around 320 million residents. If we let in every prospective immigrant, that number would rise precipitously quickly, cities would bulge, the infrastructure of the country would buckle. So we (other people, not me) have to decide where to draw the line and how to draw the line and what dictates whom the line includes and whom the line leaves out. And sometimes the line will leave out young people, and sometimes those people will drown when their impossibly flimsy boat capsizes off the coast of Turkey.

And jesus, look, the prone boy didn’t die because Canada (or the U.S.) wouldn’t let him in; he died because his own country didn’t want to let him out, because the journey was grueling, because there were people willing to take money from refugees and put them on boats that were nearly guaranteed to sink. So, the picture, for me at least, sets off complex political questions that spiral off into the ether, questions that the picture alone cannot answer.

Because maybe it is just a picture — of a boy on a beach. The beach in the picture is clean, the boy’s clothes soaked but undamaged, the skin on his soft belly and legs immaculate. A man from the Turkish Coast Guard stands several feet away, looking on. “Get out,” I think. “Get the fuck away from him.”

I can only look at the picture for a couple of seconds at a time before needing to look away. It is too much. So many things feel that way these days. Too, too, too much. Come to think of it, I regret even writing about the prone boy. I don’t deserve to engage with his picture. I am just some guy that has the luxury of waxing intellectual about an image that contains within its borders the absolute worst that life has to offer.

Baby-Proofing 101

Step 1

Do not have a baby. You are full of light and fire and piss and vinegar — like a non-sexual, golden erection (that smells a little like urine and vinegar). Babies are difficult; life should be easy, or at least minimally challenging. Do not have a baby. Do not baby-proof your home. Your home, if you have one, is great.

Step 2

You have a baby? Aaahh, so. That’s my hilarious “wise Asian” impression. It’s not offensive because I am portraying the Asian as wise, a positive trait. Anyway, forget what I said in Step 1. That was just to fluff up those weaklings that are afraid of having a baby just because it’s “incredibly difficult”. Now that they’re gone, we can talk mano a mano, which is Spanish for “man to man” (just add an “o” to any English word and voila! (French) you’ve got a Spanish word. Like this — “burrito-o”).

Babies, if you have them, are great, but they’re dangerous. They come out of the womb possessing almost no self-preservation instincts and, in fact, have a nearly superhuman propensity for doing things that have a high likelihood of killing them. No, not heroin. And that’s not funny. I’m no “square” but I don’t think it’s humorous to joke about what will definitely kill Miley Cyrus.

Babies will topple things that you didn’t think could topple, tangle themselves in cords no matter how far you push them under the couch, stick their fingers in sockets like they’re alien cyborgs pre-programmed to steal all of our precious electricity, and put anything and everything in their mouths (kind of like my ex-wife, Sheila¹). So, you will need to lock down everything in your home like Fort Knox or risk injury to or even death of your precious baby, which would almost definitely lead to some questions from the authorities, followed by some answers from you, followed by a trial, followed by jail time, followed by intimidation and possible assault from fellow inmates, followed by you joining a gang to protect yourself (I know, but what else could you do?!), followed by some unfortunate tattoos, followed by deep psychological distress, followed by parole, followed by laser tattoo removal, followed by — well, you get the picture — death eventually. None of us will be free of death’s promise. That’s the title of my new collection of limericks. Let me know if it sounds a little clunky. Actually, you know what, don’t. My ego’s a little fragile these days² and I’d probably just get defensive.

Step 3

Buy a drill. The drill is a metaphor for your power. Raising a child can be chaotic, can make you feel helpless. The drill is your way of exerting control, of exerting your power.

Step 4

Do NOT use the drill on your child! Jesus! Is that what you thought I meant? No. No. Don’t do that.

Step 5

Plug in the drill and rev it a couple times. You don’t even have to put a bit in; just rev it. “Bit” is a weak word, don’t you think? Bit. We’ll have to change it to something stronger. “Butt?” No, too many associations. “Chud?” “Nguh?” Yeah, I like that. Nguh! Anyway, you don’t even need to put an nguh! into the drill. Just rev it a couple times. Feels good, right? Yeah…oh yeah…mmm…uh huh. Yes.

Step 6

Plug all of your unused sockets with those little plastic plug cover things. What? You thought we were going to jump right to using the drill? Whoa there, Sparky! Someone’s all keyed up! No, no, no, my friend. You’ve got to work up to the main event. The climax. I’ve always said, if baby-proofing is one thing, it is a narrative metaphor for sex.

Wait…no, that doesn’t sound right. Let me check my notes. I — no…yes, no, that’s something else. I’m sorry, I was thinking of something else. Sorry.

Step 7

Gather your cords and cables against the wall. Tape them down if possible. Your child will eschew all of the expensive toys you bought them and spend all of their time attempting to turn your exposed cables into a noose. Babies, like magician/creep David Blaine, love danger.

Step 8

Buy a stud-finder. Haha, no, you can’t use my ex-wife Sheila³. Well, I mean, you could use her like a recalcitrant 7-year-old uses a pencil sharpener over and over and over in an attempt to avoid sitting down at their desk and doing any real work, but…no, no, I’ve lost the simile. Ahem. Anyway, your local hardware store will likely have an assortment you can choose from.

Step 9

Place the stud-finder against the wall and move it horizontally until the red light goes off, indicating you have found a stud. The standard American building has studs placed 16 inches apart in the wall. Occasionally, buildings will have studs placed 24 inches apart.

Step 10

Neither is true for your building. Your building appears to special. The studs are either placed at random intervals or possibly don’t exist at all. Your walls are a random amalgamation of plaster, wood, dry-wall, masonry, and, seemingly, cardboard. They are a direct reflection of the internal state of your brain since having a child. You are damaged. You are unwell, mentally.

Step 11

You were unable to find a stud. Go buy a set of plastic anchors that will allow you to drill into the drywall. Sit on the curb outside of the hardware store and think about all of the common household tasks that you are unable to master. You can bullshit a 20 page paper on Shakespeare’s use of moon-related imagery in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but you can’t unclog a drain. You can’t change a tire. You have to watch a Youtube video before feeling capable of cleaning your shower. You are a flaccid, flatulent, liberal-arts insult to your forebears. You look down and poke at your soft belly; you gently jiggle your incipient man-breasts. You are on a slow but inexorable journey towards becoming a human marshmallow. Eventually, you will simply sit, puffy and inoffensive, in the corner of your child’s room, occasionally used as a chair or pillow, gathering dust, growing old. Dying.

Step 12

Snap out of it! You can do this! Not well, probably, not well at all — maybe a C+. But, if you can at least complete this job with some tiny crumb of competence, maybe the anxiety, the chorus of voices chanting “ineffectual, ineffectual”, will recede. Lift the drill. Insert the correctly-sized nguh! Press the drill against the place on the wall that you wish to violate. Prepare to exert your will, your manhood, on the wall. Prepare to exert some modicum of control over your life. Firmly press the trigger.

Step 13

The nguh! breaks!

It goes in an inch, hits some unknowable obstruction in your wall, and snaps in half. Hold the pieces of the broken nguh! in your hand and look at them. Think briefly, wildly, of shoving them into your mouth and swallowing them. Do not do this. Instead, let them fall to the ground and roll into a corner where your baby will eventually find them and almost certainly ingest them. Hold the drill in your hands and contemplate it. It is somehow wet. Ah! Yes, of course. You are crying. Those are your tears. They are coming freely now. Look around the room at the many heavy objects that it is now abundantly clear you will never be able to affix to the wall yourself. Your baby, your sweet child, will die a horrible, lonely death under a bookcase, or dresser, or television. This much is certain. You have failed.

Step 14

Leave your home. Go out into the light and the noise. Feel the sun and the breeze on your tear-stained cheeks. It is now that part of the Fall when the temperature begins to drop and the warmth of the sun is a tangible, knowable thing — the light now wholly distinguishable from the shade. Walk to the park and sit alone on a bench, back straight. Listen to the cardinals and sparrows sing their dialogic songs. Let the distant sound of traffic work its soporific spell on you. Let your shoulders drop and your hands finally unclench. This will be ok. You will be ok. You will go down to the hardware store and ask one of the kind, taciturn men there to do the baby-proofing for you. You will negotiate a more than reasonable price. His name will be Manuel, maybe, Manny to his friends. Though he could, he will not smile in a way that reveals his disdain for your soft, white, upper-middle-class incompetence. You will want to hug him, but you will recognize that that would be an uncomfortable experience for him, so you will settle for a firm handshake.

Your wife and child will eventually come home, and you will ruefully describe your struggle with the furniture, the studs, the drill. Your wife will embrace you, kiss your cheek, indulge your self-pity a bit but not too much, and massage your bruised ego. Your baby will giggle and beam, blissfully unaware of the various death traps surrounding them.

That night you will lie in bed and think that, maybe, you must admit, there are things that you are good at beyond writing bad but serviceable essays on Shakespeare, even if none immediately come to mind.


¹ FUCK YOU SHEILA
² FUCK YOU SHEILA
³ FUCK YOU SHEILA

Guest Post: Evolution of a Father, by Alexis Dahl

In the beginning, I looked at my fiancé as a specimen in a diorama at the Natural History Museum. Most of the time I got in there and interacted with him. But sometimes I simply watched. My fiancé became a father. Then a husband. Then he devolved, becoming extremely hairy and, coincidentally, started thumping his chest. He makes happy grunts when he stands in front of the mirror holding naked Poe. “Uurgh uuuuurgh. Bah bah bah.” That’s Andrew. Occasionally Poe responds, usually with laughter. “Why don’t you use words?” she silently asks. Andrew bahs back.

No, this is not a metaphorical device. Come on over at bath time or breakfast or playtime or whenever you want and you will witness the modern male Neanderthal loping around the apartment.

I write that with love.

We went out for dinner on Andrew’s birthday. He covered his loin cloth with a pair of baby blue pants and donned a linen shirt. He honored the day of his 9 lb body busting out of his slim, gentle mama by showering. He does this once a week, or so he grunted in reproof when I asked him when he showers. In his defense, our bathroom wall is hosting a thriving ecology at the moment. To be specific, mold and plant(s?), a tendril of which peeked through next to the shower-head.

At the pizzeria Andrew picked for our night out, I looked for ways to fill the silence. He adjusted his seat, seeking a neutral position for his back. He injured it lifting stones at our wedding while braying in salute of our nuptials. Tonight he was quiet. Tired.

What do Neanderthals discuss when their baby is being guarded back at the cave? Trump’s campaign manager. Hillary’s. The art on the walls. The way I eat pizza. The similarity between the restaurant host and a friend’s ex. Plans for the next day. The chewiness of the snap peas. Not Poe. Or not much of Poe. Not much of anything with personal consequence.

My life and Andrew’s are now like the contents of Poe’s colon. Lots of undigested bits remain distinct and intact. But do you really consider them separate when they exit the same hole? Can you smell a difference between that asparagus stalk and the sweet potato? I attest: you cannot.

I see Andrew. I feel his energy longing for the differentiation between my bit and his bit. (No, Andrew, I’m not referring to our private parts.) We each generated “nurture lists” and we put them on the fridge. Me: “doing yoga, meditate, have a family picnic, travel, read a novel, get a haircut, write a poem, etc.” Andrew: “read, walk, run, journal/blog, etc.” Our intention is to help the other person do one of the actions from the list every day. A few of my actions involve spending time with Andrew, but we both prioritized being alone, separate from our significant other.

Becoming a parent is rudely awaking in the alternate universe of sleep-deprived moms and dads, specters we used to pass through on the subway, in the street, everywhere. We’ve been sworn into the society of volitionally milk and shit-stained. We are constantly reminded of how un-unique our experiences are – gratefully, gloriously! common.

But I don’t want to be a “mom” in Andrew’s eyes, my colors muted by sleeplessness and daily chores. Moreover, I don’t want Andrew to blend in with that sea of dads, vanquished, denuded of their man caves. It’s in that space he cultivates his particular aroma, the one that made me want to stick my nose in his armpit and breathe deeply. So when Andrew asks to go for a walk while I sit with Poe, I say yes both begrudgingly and with relief. He widens the distance between me and him, a space across which I peer at his identity. Not as “dad”, but as intelligent, sexy, unknowable man. Apart from me. Not a part of me.

Back at home, I foisted birthday cake on my exhausted caveman. He ate each bite while affirming that yes, he liked the cake, wow, that must have been hard work, mmm, I now taste that saltiness. All this without language. That will come back, in the morning, or after another few years of our evolution. Meanwhile, I am content to stand on the opposite side of the glass tank. I am content to not be able to touch all that he is. He is not mine, neither is Poe for that matter. In preserving a self outside my reach, he preserves us.

–Alexis

One Year Older

One year older.

I injured my back at our wedding a couple months ago¹ and am now in physical therapy. I’m heavier than I used to be. My doctor is going to put me on blood pressure medication unless I get serious about exercising, then might do it anyway if the exercise doesn’t help. There’s some white in my beard.

Hi ho.

◎◎◎

Last year, for my birthday, Alexis took me to Daybreaker, an early morning, drugless rave. I wore a goofy top hat that Alexis bought me, and she wore her five-month-pregnant belly. We drank cold brew and kale juice and danced and jumped until our knees were sore, then went to a diner and ate like animals. This morning, Alexis joked that it was foolish to have done something like that last year — woken up so early. Instead, we should have slept the whole day, knowing now what lay ahead of us.

◎◎◎

Poe can stand now, so when she’s decided it’s time to get up, she pulls herself up using the bars in the crib and yells raucously for us to come get her. Being greeted by a grinning, bouncing baby when I come in to get her in the morning is one of my new life’s undeniable pleasures.

She only wakes once a night these days (nights?), and had we not taken two big, sleep-disrupting trips this summer, we would have likely eliminated that one wake up by now. In a week she goes into daycare, and sleep will no doubt be disrupted again.

Hi ho.

Daycare. Yikes. She will adjust. There will be a couple days of heavy, heart-rending crying, but she will adjust. She has proven herself to be a pretty resilient baby; it’s Mommy and Daddy that will likely have the hardest time.

◎◎◎

One of the biggest downsides/upsides to parenting is that I’m constantly referring to myself as “Daddy”.

◎◎◎

Parenting has gotten much easier for me since I battled the nap demon² during paternity leave. But anxiety still dogs me at every turn.

A month ago, we noticed a leak in our bathroom ceiling. There was some issue with the plumbing in the unit above us, and water was draining into our ceiling and walls. We didn’t get it dealt with quickly enough, and a week ago it became clear we had mold in the walls. The super came and sloppily tore a hole in the wall/ceiling, then realized that the dry-wall was still too damp to work on. So, he had to leave it alone for a couple of days to dry, leaving the gaping hole open to pour mold spores directly into our lungs and the lungs of our 8-month-old child. Alexis and I have been nearly catatonic with stress for the past week. It’s scary. I’m not especially concerned about my own well-being³, but when you throw a baby into the mix…

I had visions of Poe developing serious, long term health issues and Alexis and I never forgiving ourselves. You know…anxiety’s greatest hits.

It’s being dealt with. The management company ended up sending a kind and charismatic plumber, a welcome relief from our surly, obstructionist, corner-cutting, impossible-to-understand super. We still have a moldy hole in our bathroom, but it’s being dealt with. I lift my head out of the deep, dark waters of anxiety and the sun is visible. I will be submerged again, I know, but for now I can float all right.

◎◎◎

Poe waved at a waiter a couple nights ago. First time she’s ever done it. The waiter, a young latino man wearing glasses, stood off to the side, waving at Poe and smiling. She looked at him quizzically for a bit, then slapped her hand against the table a couple times, raised it, and rotated it back and forth at him. We couldn’t believe it. We’ve been trying to get her to mimic us for weeks, to no avail. Then she meets a kind stranger in a restaurant and lifts her impossibly small and delicate hand into the air to connect with him across the decades.


¹ HUMPING UR MOM.
² And motherfucking won.
³ Lost cause.

The Paternity Leave Chronicles, Vol. 1

I am writing this feverishly during one of Poe’s four daily half-hour naps. “Shouldn’t a baby nap for more than a half hour?” you say. And my answer to that comes in two parts: Fuck. You.

Yes, she should. She should be napping more like an hour to an hour and a half at a stretch, but Poe’s always been a trend-setter, and the baby books are so full of “shoulds” that I could puke. I want to shove all the “shoulds” up my own ass, light them on fire, and then shoot into the air like a bottle rocket.

So, paternity leave is going great, thanks for asking!

I’m kidding. It’s mostly pretty ok, but it started out with me having a full emotional breakdown in front of my parents. It’s been (mostly) up from there. It’s all so tedious to relate. I attempt to exert some sort of control over the situation, find myself woefully intellectually and emotionally over-matched, and then have some sort of anxious meltdown. If I ask you to hang out any time in the next couple of weeks, DON’T DO IT. I guarantee I’ll talk to you about naps the whole time and possible cry at the end (or throughout).

Again, I’m kidding. I’m ok. I’ve been not ok for stretches of this, but right now I’m ok. I’m trying to find that middle ground between caring and letting go. I came at parenting like a battering ram, thinking that if I just threw myself at it hard enough, I could master it. But it’s clear now that there will be no mastery. I am reconciling myself to being a B- father. And let me be clear: in terms of amount of love and care that I give to Poe, I think I’m an A/A-. A lot of fathers are barely present in their children’s lives and if there is one thing I am right now, it’s present. I am extremely fucking present with my child. I am Deep. In. The. Shit. But in terms of keeping myself mentally, emotionally, and physically together, I’m about a D-. So, let’s say that averages out to about a B-.

I wish I could relax. I want to let go. But here’s the thing: letting go only works up to a point. Sleep is a fundamentally important part of Poe’s life, and if she doesn’t get enough of it, EVERYONE suffers. So, I’ve got to provide her with structure and routine, or she and I will be miserable. And if I obsess, if I try to force things, she and I will be miserable. So, I have to find my balance somewhere in the middle. Which has been difficult.

I can’t determine whether I wish I knew more or less. Less probably. Fuck it, definitely less. I have often joked at my job (standardized test prep) that once I’ve moved on from it, I will get a very specific lobotomy to erase my intimate knowledge of all of the SATs and ACTs that have been released in the last 10 years. I feel the same way about parenthood. Once Poe stops napping during the day, I would love to go in and excise the part of brain that contains intimate knowledge of infant sleep cycles. I wish I didn’t know how much babies need to nap or that most babies can nap 1-2 hours at a stretch. I wish I didn’t know that naps in the stroller or carrier have a detrimental effect on Poe’s ability to nap in the crib. I wish I had enough of a fuck-it attitude to just strap Poe to my chest, throw the diaper bag over my shoulder, and go explore New York City, letting Poe sleep when she damn well pleases. But instead, I’ve imprisoned myself in the apartment, reading baby books and staring at the monitor, trying to will Poe into napping longer with the sheer force of my titanic anxiety.

I think I will look back and be (grimly) thankful that I took paternity leave. I will be thankful that we were able to get Poe that much more time with a parent before she toddles off to daycare (where she will probably finally decide to nap for long stretches, THE BITCH! Sorry.). But for now, I can’t help but think that maybe Poe would be better off with a professional who is paid (and trained) to take care of babies. I don’t know. I’m probably selling myself short. But having a daddy that goes off the fucking deep end is likely not too healthy for a child.

I’m not going to go off the deep end. I’m being hyperbolic. What? No, I don’t do that all the time; I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Poe pulled herself across the floor for the first time yesterday. I placed her on a mat on the kitchen floor and handed her a couple of toys to play with while I did the dishes (so many bottles). When I looked down a couple minutes later, she had turned 90 degrees and was two feet closer to me. She looked up at me and I looked down at her and she grunted, slapped her hands to the floor, and pulled herself forward an inch. And then she did it again. And again.

If I hadn’t taken leave, would I regret missing these little milestones? I doubt it. Poe has a couple milestones a week, and I don’t need to see her do something for the first time to feel a sense of wonder when I see it for the first time. But it’s still meaningful. It’s meaningful to be the person that helps her get through the day, that sees her scoot for the first time, that spends those couple minutes after she’s been fed and is completely milk drunk listening to her babble and coo and watching her grin at me and drool. The moment to moment of it all is mostly tedious and is almost definitely flooding my system with enough stress hormones to fell a walrus, but if I’m able to step ever-so-slightly back, distance myself from it the tiniest bit, I can revel in the magic of my quickly developing daughter and bask in the difficult glory of it all.

Distance/Waves

In a shabby kitchen in Moscow in the winter of 2006, my closest friend, Thom, told me that I shut people out. That I was never willing to reach out and meet people halfway. If I wasn’t getting what I wanted from someone, I shut down, closed off. It was startling. Our friendship up until that point had rarely, if ever, involved candid, blunt criticism. I yelled, “but these people don’t understand me, Thom!” while continuing to angrily stir my abysmal dinner (I couldn’t afford anything beyond pasta and sad-looking Russian vegetables.

It was a ridiculous, Chekhovian moment — one of many that occurred throughout the petty disputes about the play we were currently producing with three others. We were working in Russia in the dead of winter on a half puppetry, half live-action adaptation of a play about the holocaust. All in all, a great choice.

The group couldn’t see eye to eye on anything. We didn’t possess a shared language with which to discuss aspects of the play, so the work was inefficient and muddled and I was beyond frustrated. Thom didn’t like the direction things were headed in either but adopted a significantly more upbeat attitude than I. We brought our issues and recommendations for a way forward to the rest of the group at a meeting. Our pleas fell on entirely deaf ears. The people in charge denied that our issues were really issues and thus didn’t see a need to make any changes. It felt as if I had gone to them with my arm on fire and said, “what are we going to do about this?” and they had responded, “about what? We don’t see a problem.”

So, I shut down. I turned into a morose, vicious collaborator, lashing out at what I saw as grave injustices with the only weapon I really possessed: sarcasm. Every little hiccup, every stumbling block we ran into merited a vicious comment from me. I became compulsively, relentlessly negative. I tore down everything I could find with derision until the head of the project pulled me aside during a rehearsal, tears in his eyes, and begged me to be positive for the sake of the rest of the cast. I told him that it was too late. The project was a failure as far as I was concerned, and I had been betrayed. So, while it was impossible for me to be positive, I could — at the very least — shut up. Which I (mostly) did.

Had it been a professional production, or at least one not run by friends of mine, I would have been fired. Decisively. My complaints were justified and, I still think, correct, but my response was inexcusable.

I don’t really know where this persecution complex, this me against the world mentality, this vengefulness, comes from. I’ve led a pretty easy life. Though, as a child I went to an elementary school for children of active military members (not because my parents were military but because they taught there) and my friends were constantly moving away, their families re-stationed every couple years. So, I’m used to being left and left and left. Used to having to put up defenses.

I don’t know.

I could exhaust myself with the amount of self-psychotherapy I conduct.

◎◎◎

Alexis and I got pregnant before I was ready¹. So, I’m primed to see issues, bumps in the road of parenthood as evidence that we should have waited. “Aha! You see! I’m not prepared for this! I was right. We should have waited.”

In calmer, steadier moments (of which there have been many, despite what my writings might suggest) I am able to see that this idea of readiness is irrelevant. I have a daughter. I love her so much I can’t handle it all at once. I have to let the love in in little pieces, like sunlight between half-closed eyelids, or I’ll be blinded. I am a good father. These things are true. But in unsteady moments, when Poe wakes up 20 minutes after we’ve put her to bed or when I’m battling her for a nap, when the familiar darkness encroaches at the corners of my vision, I want to lash out with “we should have waited!” I want to rub Alexis’s face in it. I want to torture her with it.

There have been long stretches² when parenting has brought Alexis and me closer together, and then there are times when it detonates between us like a mortar, driving us apart. Like Poe’s behavior and sleep patterns, these times are temporary, stunningly transient when taken in context of the bigger picture. I know this. But Alexis fears this will hang over us forever. That I will bring it up in times of strife in a never ending cycle of emotional violence.

I don’t think so. But I don’t know. How do you let a thought go? It’s easy to think, “this is irrelevant; I should let this go,” but how do you do it? Concentrate really hard? Yell about it for a while? Write it on a tiny piece of parchment, tie it to the foot of a mourning dove and then release the mourning dove into the sky and then incinerate the mourning dove with a flame-thrower?

Two things are unimpeachably true:

1) We had a baby before I wanted to.

2) I have to let that idea go.

Ultimately, I said “yes, let’s do it; let’s have a baby.” It takes two to tango³. But I want…I don’t know. Not an apology. Recognition. Witness. What exactly this recognition consists of I do not entirely know, but once I’ve got it, I want to let all of this resentment fall through my fingers like sand.

When I was a kid, my friends and I would often venture out into the cold central California surf. I was nearly always terrified but didn’t want to be the sad boy left alone on the sand. Anyone who’s spent time in the ocean knows that when a big wave comes rolling in, you have to go out to meet it. If you flee, you’ll inevitably be crushed. The current surges out to fuel the wave and only the strongest of swimmers (of which I was and am absolutely not one) can overpower the current and get themselves far enough in towards shore to not get slammed. It’s smarter, and much easier, to pour your energy into heading straight at the wave. The current will be with you, and when you reach the behemoth, you can go over, under, or, if necessary, through it.

Intellectually, I knew this. Everyone — parents, friends, surfers, swimmers — had told me. And yet nearly every time, I couldn’t do it. I’d flee. I’d beat my flimsy, worthless limbs agains the water, trying desperately to reach the safety of shore. And more often than not, the wave would reach me and punish me for my fear, slamming me to the ocean floor. This happened time after salty, sputtery time, and yet I couldn’t bring myself to go out to meet the wave. What if I got over it and right behind it was another towering wave, and after that another and another and another?

Well, there is. There are. Wave after wave after wave. And if I continue to pull away, I will continue to get slammed with the full force of the raging ocean⁴. But if I can gather my courage up inside me like a fist, maybe I can swim straight at the waves, flow over them before they break, feel their power beneath me, and respect their might without getting pummeled. And after cresting wave after wave, maybe I’ll get far enough from the shore to  reach some semblance of calmer waters⁵.
¹ What exactly the word ‘ready’ means and whether anyone can ever actually be it is a topic for another post.

² Long? Ha! Poe is 4 months old!

³ Have procreative sex.

⁴ Life. This is a metaphor for life. Have you gotten that yet? I bet you have. You’re very smart. And attractive. What are you doing later?

⁵ Still using a metaphor here, just to be clear.

On Darkness, or The Good Parts

I focus on the darkness.

In life, yes, but, more particularly, on this blog. Part of that is an attempt to balance the scales of parenthood media. Don’t get me wrong, if you dig, there is no shortage of brutally honest portrayals of the difficulty of early parenting. But still, the overwhelming sense you get from books/movies/people is one of innocence, of joyfulness. In commercials or in films, when the sleep-deprived father closes the door to his child’s bedroom, finally thinking he has gotten her to sleep, and she wakes upon hearing his first creaky step on the floor boards, the father gives an “aw shucks” sigh or hangs his head instead of collapsing against the wall in tears or cursing violently under his breath or punching some unbending surface until his knuckles are raw and his fingers are broken.

On a good day, I am trying to get through to the truth, to the meaning of my life (I don’t think I can speak for anyone else’s). By writing, by reading, by talking to people I love, or people I barely know, by collaborating on artistic projects, I am trying to push through to the truth of my existence. And maybe I’m near-sighted, mopey, narcissistic, naive, but I think the path to the truth lies through darkness. Through facing the things in my life that are difficult (of which there have been mercifully – or woefully – few) and being honest about them. I don’t mean to block out the light – I want the light to be the light – but I am letting darkness take the stage for a bit, so I can see what it says. I feel that not to give it its due would be truly foolish. Truly naive.

Alexis went up to Boston to visit her sister and try on wedding dresses a week ago and brought the Pope-a-dope with her (baby’s first trip). I got home from work at 7:30 pm the night they got back and upon entering the apartment was greeted with the sound of a complaining Poe. “Here we go,” I thought.

Alexis brought out our very crabby, tired-looking daughter. Her eyes were red and staring. Clearly it was bed time. She gets into these moods when we don’t catch her sleepiness quickly enough and won’t be consoled until she’s been fed and put down to sleep. But the second she looked at me, she calmed. She didn’t smile or light up, just looked at me.

I’m constantly imbuing Poe with thoughts and feelings and narratives that are probably just products of my imagination, but this is what the look said to me:

I see you.

It felt like a simple acknowledgement that we are tied to each other, have been tied to each other since her birth (or maybe before), and will be tied to each other until the day I die and until the day she later (much later, please) dies — that when my eyes close for the last time, I will be thinking of her. And when her eyes close for the last time, she will be thinking of me.

That’s my narrative at least.

I was anxious for the rest of the night in a generalized way. Preoccupied. I hadn’t seen Alexis in three days but found myself unable to focus on her. “Is Poe about to wake up?” I thought to myself. “Do I have clinical depression or anxiety? Am I going to need to go on medication?”

Alexis gave Poe a dream feeding around 10:30 pm and then we went to bed. I awoke to Poe’s voice over the monitor at 11:30 pm. Usually Alexis wakes up first, but she’s so sleep-deprived at this point that I’ve been waking up first on occasion. Alexis has been in charge of all night duties for a couple weeks now, but Poe didn’t sound too upset and, based on the clock, definitely didn’t need to be fed. So, I quietly got up and walked into Poe’s room, hoping to let Alexis sleep a little longer.

The moon was full that night and our blackout curtains are shit, so the room was filled with a crystalline blue light. Poe had flipped over onto her stomach (a common nightly occurrence) and had also rotated 90 degrees and gotten both her legs wedged between the slats in the crib. So, there she was — face down, torso in the crib, legs dangling out — making goofy gliding sounds with her voice. She didn’t sound happy necessarily, but definitely didn’t sound upset. Just reveling in the new sounds she has been learning each day.

I freed Poe from her wooden prison, rotated her, and eased her onto her side (her preferred sleeping position). She continued to babble, eyes closed. I put a pacifier in her mouth, patted her back, and shushed a bit. She immediately calmed. I continued the shush-patting for a few moments just to seal the deal. I allowed myself to bask in the moment for a bit.

Here she and I were, in the most basic of parent/child interactions, performed in some version or other billions of times across the globe since the dawn of humanity. She had a need, I provided it. Simply. I didn’t think about my ego or whether this meant she would continue to have sleep disruptions for the next 17 years or whether it maybe would have been easier to avoid having a child in the first place. Just me in a room with my daughter. No far-reaching ramifications. It felt simple and deep and good.

She woke up 10 minutes later, but I didn’t care. My mind didn’t flood me with a million negative thoughts or outcomes. We were engaged in a dance, she and I, and I had stumbled quite a bit in the beginning and would step on her feet many more times before this was all through, but for now I was moving, I was calm, I was fluid, I was smiling.

 

New Dad Diet! (FOR DADS!!!)

For Dads of ~4-month-olds:

6 am

Wake up. Brew a pot of coffee. Pour the first scalding hot cup out on your arm to remind yourself how to feel. Drink the remaining three cups.

6:30 am

Pick up an orange and look at it. Mutter, “Haha, fuck that,” under your breath and throw the orange against the wall with all your (pitiful, emasculated) strength. Quickly clean up the mess so that you don’t have to explain your (impotent) rage issues to your partner later.

7:30 am

Decide to “treat yourself” by going out and buying a croissant or bagel for the 98th morning in a row. Eat the pastry quickly, desperately, on the street or over the sink. Look down at your incipient man breasts and think to yourself re: your partner, “She knew what she was getting into. Frankly, she only has herself to blame.”

9 am

Brew another pot of coffee. Don’t pour any of this one out on yourself. Just drink the four cups. If the area behind your eyes begins to burn with a searing, white heat and you can see your own death occurring in front of you like a hologram, then you’ve hit the correct caffeine threshold.

11:20 am

Pour a handful of raw, unsalted almonds directly into the trash.

12:30 pm

Get lunch at a diner. If a vegetable touches your plate, make damn sure it’s pickled or decorative or send it right back.

2:45 pm

Eat white cheddar popcorn by the sloppy handful. 30%-70% of it will end up on your shirt. Look around to make sure no one is watching. If your baby is watching, throw a blanket over its head. Then, pull your shirt out and up and create a sort of funnel leading to your mouth. Shake the shirt so the rest of the popcorn falls into your expectant maw.

4:17 pm

Repeat the phrase “Diabetes only happens to old, fat people,” until you can feel tears running down your cheeks. Gather the tears in a small bowl and sprinkle them over some stale salt and vinegar potato chips. Whisper the words, “Life hack,” and smile bitterly.

8 pm

After putting your baby down for bed, decide to “treat yourself” by ordering delivery for the 98th night in a row. Your baby will wake multiple times during the ordering process but stay the course: you’ll need fuel to help you tackle the ~18 times your baby wakes during the night. In the “Special Instructions” box on GrubHub, write a desperate, rambling message about how you’re trapped in a prison of you’re own making/used to be an interesting person/could have been someone important, etc.

8:45 pm

Eat dinner over the sink in between wakings. Think of it as a six-course tasting menu consisting of increasingly cold bites of the same dish. Repeat the tears/chips/life-hack sequence for dessert.

10 pm

Drink a steaming mug of calming chamomile tea while discussing with your partner the developmental leaps you witnessed during the day. Sit next to her. Feel the weight of her body against yours. Comfort her; support her. Bury your face in her hair and express gratitude for the fact that you have a partner and child who love you more than anyone in the world. JUST KIDDING, DO THE TEARS/CHIPS/LIFE-HACK SEQUENCE AGAIN!

10:30 pm

Collapse into bed and fall immediately asleep. Inadvertently ingest two spiders in your sleep. Whisper the words, “life-hack”.

12:3o am

Wake to the sound of crying (baby’s).

2 am

Wake to the sound of crying (baby’s).

3 am

Wake to the sound of crying (baby’s and yours).

3:30 am

Wake to the sound of crying (baby’s, yours, partner’s).

3:45 am

”      ”

4 am

”      ”

5 am

”      ”

6 am

The cycle begins anew.

I’M OK (cry for help)

I want to go around punching all the childless people I see.

Poe’s sleep devolved about a week ago, and now we’re in the shit. Everything was looking rosy for a little while, culminating in one night where Poe slept for 6 hours in a row and then 3 straight hours after that. Glorious. But then something changed. It resulted from one of two things. Or both.

One, babies have sleep regressions. Something about their brains develop and they need to adjust to the world again, which causes disrupted sleep. The first big one is supposed to come at 4 months. Poe is only 3 months old, but she’s been advanced in other ways, so I wouldn’t be too surprised if she’s early. I’m not bragging, but, I mean, yeah, suck it, I guess.

The other possible cause is the one I’m kicking myself about. Three days before the breakdown, we started trying to get Poe to nap in the crib. Up until that point, she’d only ever really napped on someone or in the stroller. In an effort to not overwhelm Poe or ourselves, we started by trying to get only the first nap of the day in the crib.

The first time we put her down, she cried. Not surprising, but the crying was more fervent than the type of crying she does at night, which is more like complaining. I put my hand on her and tried the pacifier several times. On the fifth or sixth try (after about 15 minutes), she fell begrudgingly asleep. She only slept for about 25 minutes, but, all in all, it felt like a victory. Stupid Rome wasn’t built in a day, and it took us 7-10 nights of solid work to get Poe to sleep on her back in the bassinet at night, so I was prepared for a period of adjustment.

The next day, we tried again. This time, she cried a little harder and required a pick-up followed by some rocking. But then she fell asleep and napped on her back for a half hour. A tiny step in the right direction. Unfortunately, the next day was worse. Then things snowballed. Within three days, all of Poe’s naps, as well as her night-time sleep, were disrupted, culminating in a truly hellish Friday night.

I began to read voraciously. What was going on? Was it time for sleep training? Had we screwed things up somehow? The pediatrician said that the devolution of the naps was clearly affecting the night-time sleep and that it may be time for some version of sleep training. I asked the pediatrician which type she recommended, but she said that she couldn’t single out one method as better than the rest. They all seemed to work equally well, she said, as long as we committed to one and were consistent. I asked the doctor about concerns about a baby’s distress and cortisol levels in response to sleep training (I made the mistake of reading a study) and she assuaged those concerns relatively well. Poe was going to have to go through an adjustment period if we were going to try to get her on her back, and that would involve some crying, one way or another. I hung up the phone emboldened and encouraged.

And then we completely balked.

I made the mistake of reading up more on sleep training (why do I keep fucking reading?!) and read The Baby Whisperer, which makes some good points, but is stunningly negative and condescending and, at times, terrifying. It made me feel like I’d already ruined Poe’s life by letting her cry a minute here and a minute there.

So, we balked. We weren’t ready for sleep training. Most experts don’t recommend babies start sleep training until they are at least 4 months old. Poe is, as I said, 3 months old. We don’t want to scar her, and we don’t want to have to start sleep training right back up after the 4 month sleep regression wraps up (if this is indeed it).

So, we’re back to square…I don’t know. Negative one? First, we’ve gone back to Poe napping in the wrap, hoping this will calm her down and stabilize her a bit. We’re trying to get her on a more reliable schedule during the day (something we hadn’t really done at all until now) and are going to try to stop nursing her to sleep, which has become a big prop for her. So, we’ll see. The first night trying to get things back on track, it took 50 minutes to get her to sleep, but then she had a so-so night. The couple nights after that, not so great. I don’t know. Help?

But, so, anyway, the last week has been hell, and I’ve been looking around at childless people and wanting to tackle them and scream my pain into their eyes and down their throats. Just now, upon leaving my building, I saw a young man walking without a care in the world, two books under his arm.

“What do you think you’re gonna do, fancy boy?!” I thought-screamed, “Read both of them?! Well, aren’t you awash in a sea of free time?!”

Walking through the park with Alexis and Poe this weekend, I saw couple upon couple lounging on the grass or spread out on benches. One sat beside each other, separated by a backpack, he staring at his phone, she reading a book. Next to them, another couple, the man looking as if he had been posed by a photographer to embody disaffected, carefree boredom. I wanted to puke fire onto all of them.

Happy parents rankle me as well, but rather than wanting to rage-jaculate all over them, I want to grab them by the shoulders and scream, “How do you do it?!” If I had one less ounce of self-control, I would accost every last parent I saw on the street and demand they tell me how they got their kid to sleep, or at least how they survived the first year. Sleep training? Co-sleeping? Just riding it out? Anti-depressants? Partial self-lobomy? I don’t give a shit, I’ll do it! I’ll do it.

Or not. I mean, if its the least bit challenging or stressful, we probably won’t do it. So…yeah.

Scattered Thoughts About Bodies

Bodies

We were skinny when we were younger, lithe and barely there.

◎◎◎

By the time I re-met Alexis, I had softened up a bit, but I remember in college being ashamed of how flat my torso was, how visible my bones were. Then, slowly over time, whiskey, beer and bread bulged over my waistband and pulled my chest out and down.

Alexis has always been impossibly thin, dangerously so at times. I remember her hip bones jutting against mine in a dorm room at Dartmouth at an alumni theater festival, the first time we took our clothes off together. There used to be a running joke among my friends about how I purported to like full, curvy women but always ended up with waifish intellectuals. You can’t escape what you are, I guess. And deep in my heart, I’ll always be a waifish intellectual.

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Two summers ago, I had a bad reaction to Cipro¹ and was hobbled for months, my achilles tendons aching and weak. I fell genuinely out of shape. I’ve always been lazy, too free with my fried potato consumption, but this was different. I wasn’t able to exercise aerobically for four months. Unsurprisingly, this showed up in my body. My thighs rubbed together; I went up a couple pants sizes. This was, I think, barely noticeable to anyone but the body-obsessed (and Alexis, of course) but I noticed it, staring at myself in the unforgiving light of the bathroom mirror at the beginning or ending of the day.

I am constantly pulled between two poles, as, I believe, is the whole country: the desire to be healthy (and thus conventionally beautiful) and the desire to love my body no matter what it looks like. The former is a real concern. Even if I got to the point where I loved my sagging, softer body unconditionally, that love would be short-lived if I were felled by a massive heart attack at age 45. I eat too much saturated fat, too few vegetables; I drink too much alcohol too often: these are things that are true. But, secretly², I want to do these things and reap the consequences. I want to die fat and rosy and tipsy and extremely fucking happy, knowing that I had sucked deep from life and hadn’t counted calories.

But at the same time I don’t ever want to die³. I want to feel good when I get up in the morning. I want to take my shirt off and not look like the human equivalent of a tuna salad sandwich on white bread.

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Alexis, much to my chagrin, asked for a fancy video monitoring system on our baby registry. We set it up a little while back (it’s terrible) and found that it plays a hilariously cruel joke: it records moments of activity and plays them back to you WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT⁴. Want to forget the time you walked around in circles at 4 am, bouncing your daughter and singing her an unhinged, improvised lullaby? Too bad, here it is on repeat! I caught a glimpse of myself shirtless, bending over to put Poe down in her bassinet, and it was FUCKING CHASTENING. I immediately turned to Alexis and thanked her for continuing to be attracted to me⁵.

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I did something that hurt Alexis, back when she was still living in Switzerland and I was struggling with the idea of commitment, and she lost a not-insubstantial amount of weight. It was scary. She was already desperately thin and I watched her begin to disappear before my eyes. Then, when we moved in together, she gained some weight. I knew Alexis had dabbled in eating disorders before, and I would get in her face if she skipped a meal (something I suspect she got away with on a regular basis when she lived alone). She would make assessments of her body that were categorically insane for someone of her size and frame, and it would make me angry.

But I don’t know what it’s like to be a woman in this country, and I never will. The entertainment industry does its best to body-shame men equally as hard as women these days⁶, but it will always be worse for women. Agents and casting directors say things like, “well, you’ll need to lose 15 pounds,” and we can’t even call it an insult. It’s just the truth. Low on talent? Who gives a shit?! If we can see your jawline and collar bone⁷, then you’ve got a passing shot. Even our overweight celebrities are gorgeous. Melissa McCarthy is genuinely good-looking, as is Aidy Bryant. Adele is one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen.

I know that tv, film, theater — and even music these days — are visual media. Executives are going to employ people who they think will attract the most viewers and thus make the most money. I’m not an idiot; I’m not being disingenuous. I’m aware of how capitalism works. But why are we so afraid of people who don’t look a certain way?

◎◎◎

Alexis, of course, gained some more weight when she got pregnant and then has kept on some of it post-partum⁸. She laments it, thinks about it often. But I didn’t fall in love with her because she was skinny. I fell in love with her because her brain was made of holy fire. I fell in love with her because her whole being was alight with life, with simultaneous brightness and darkness. An optimist with a deep well of melancholy.

And look, I hope this doesn’t sound like some sort of sanctimonious pat on the back⁹ or that it sounds blithe or naive. I know how insidious, how deeply ingrained body image issues can be. So I don’t mean to imply that this is some sort of simple or easy fix. But, seriously, how do we free ourselves? How do we help our friends, our lovers, our children free themselves to be able to look down at the curves, the lumps, the angles, the evidence that life, that experience, can put a mark on our bodies and think that that is not sad, not disappointing, but beautiful. That is time; that is life.

And how do I direct that love back toward myself? How do I look in the mirror at the folds and the handles and the softness, and smile and think, “that’s life”?

◎◎◎

We were skinny when we were younger, lithe and barely there. But now life has filled us up a bit. And in the dark, in the night, our daughter (hopefully) asleep in the next room, our hands search for each other, trace the curves and the bones, trying to grasp the life, pull it out of each other, trying to fill our noses and our mouths with it. In stolen moments and quiet hours, we bury our faces in each other’s hair and attempt to inhale the particles of eternity that have begun to settle there.

___________________________________________________

¹ In not especially rare cases, Cipro (and a handful of other antibiotics) attacks all the tendons in a person’s body. DO NOT TAKE CIPRO. Seriously.
² And plenty of the time not so secretly.
³ Have I told you about my fear of death? It is POTENT.
⁴ I’m not kidding. I can’t figure out how to turn this feature off.
⁵ Or at least feigning it well.
⁶ When was the last time you saw an Everyman hero with an actual everyman physique? 1980?
⁷ And hell, throw in a couple ribs, why the fuck not?
⁸ Difficult to jog with an infant attached to one’s nipple, I presume.
⁹ I still love my partner even though she gained 15 pounds?! What am I, A SAINT?!?!