The Real Story is Down the Page a Bit

The importance of reading the whole thing.

The kids have story writing every Thursday. They’re given a writing prompt and some gentle help moving their work along. The Boy has said often that he doesn’t like it, but he’s a left-handed writer and I’m told that it is pretty normal for the lefties to be annoyed by the act of writing for the first few years, what with all the physical rebellions against  mechanical standards and procedures. And also the smudging.

The Girl generally says she does like it. She’s a natural speller and focuses well and has a head full of scampering whims and intentions, so she can sit down and churn out plenty without getting too bogged down. She is a bit literal and straight, though, and she moves between sentences like a bowling ball between pins. This will all be ironed out with practice and guidance. She has the unteachable knack of taking it very personally, too, so there’s a chance that writing can make her crazy eventually, meaning that she might be very, very good at it.

Yesterday’s writing prompt was “hope.” The Girl has asked me not to read hers. Too personal, too revealing. She can’t bear for me to know. Of course I’ll read it the first chance I get.

The Boy, on the other hand, said “Papa, make sure you go in tomorrow and read my story.” He is the self-promoter that I have never been. I strutted with them both through the hall this morning, cocky as all get out because I know I am a better parent than any of these people, and my kids are far more useful already than theirs. Before I entered the classroom, one parent had already told me that she loved The Boy’s story. In the classroom, both teachers said “I hope you’re here to read his story. It’s wonderful.” This was getting interesting.

I floated past the 1st grade scrawlings and pictures, passing Chloe’s and Connor’s and Vera’s and Milo’s (Meatloaf, he likes to be called, says it’s Spanish), and found The Boy’s. Atop the page is a sickly, uncomfortable red and black marker drawing of a big building that looks like a moldy hospital, but says Seattle University across it. Spelled properly, score. The first sentence said “I hope that I go to a great college.” This, it turned out, was the entirety of what all of these people thought was so exceptional. They may not have read past that line. To my eyes they looked like they were relieved, all these adults, made to feel safe by the thought that a 7 year old has already emerged from the great die-cutter, ready and eager to take his place in the procession that has produced everything that they put their faith in. And of course the most certain thing is that they all now think that, because he said he wants to go to college, he must have pretty good parents who are sitting at home and telling him the Right Things, because they are Good Persons, and no doubt on the Right Side of History.

He does. He has incredible parents, but not for those reasons. And he has an amazing sister who I already know will fight his fights for him until he is fighting hers. But that he wrote that he wants to go to college is nothing special. He sees what I am doing, and I talk about it, and like a good boy he wants to do what his dad is doing. If I was a drunk he would want to be a drunk, too. When the mother of one of his friends said “That first sentence is amazing: ‘I hope that I to go to a great college,'” I said “I just keep trying to make sure he knows he doesn’t have to.” Because he doesn’t. But if I don’t tell him that, it’s possible that nobody ever will. And if he eventually finds out that college is not his cup of Kool-aid, he’ll feel as smoked out and useless as I did when that happened to me. College isn’t everything. I’m only doing it now because it is free and I am missing some piece of self-determination that I thought going to college could help me pop the clutch on. So far it has been a raging success for me, but if I was in my twenties or a B/B- kind of student (or God help me, both), I would be miserable. Wasted for the future and needing another path. I will work hard to make sure that my kids don’t rest all their expectations on an artificially clean run through the Academy.

With his teacher standing next to me and sounding more like a proud parent than I did, I moved her attention down the page. “Here,” I said, “is the best part.” He has had a cold for a few days, was probably wiping snot with his sleeve while he wrote his story, and the sentence said “I hope this sickness runs from me soon.” He didn’t do it on purpose, of course, but it’s loaded with meaning, it’s rhythmically neat, terse and tidy, and it’s all grown up. Having built such a simple, direct sentence with a bit of anthropomorphism and the subtle flourish of metaphor, intentional or no, is a far more heartening indication of his innate potential than any sophomoric declaration of a desire for college.

We’re going on and on as we can only do. I’m starting to look at MFA programs and getting a little more serious about pushing my work around for publication. If all goes well the kids will eventually be able to see that college has worked for me because of qualities that possessed or lacked, not because of the infallible utility of the university itself.

They’ll be able to see, most importantly, that you don’t really know anything if you only read the first sentence.

Breakfast

“You and mom,” he said.

“Careful now, boy.”

“You and mom,” he said, “are at that age when”

“Eggshells, boy. Have I told you about eggshells?”

“You and mom are at that age when,” here he goes. I can’t believe he’s doing this “at that age when you start shrinking.”

“Get out.”

I used to write these little things down all the time, and am pretty crushed at this point that I’ve spent the last 4 years or so neglecting to record the interactions that I have with the kids. They made some of the best essays I’ve written. My daughter is 10 now, and too neat, so she doesn’t delve into ridiculous things like the 7 year old boy does. And when she did, it wasn’t as ridiculous as it was adorable. The boy, on the other hand, is just a friggin’ mess. To wit:

“I like being in pain. Like an adult. That’s what it all has to go through when you’re an adult. Having pain with your children.”

I don’t know about pain, but it’s telling that he interprets it that way. And his sister asked me today, point blank, “what is it like to be a parent?” How in God’s name do you answer that? They sat behind their cereal bowls, staring at me expectantly, the girl in her pajamas and morning hair, the boy, deathcamp-skinny in nothing but boxer shorts the size of a postage stamp. I don’ know how he survives, I just know that the world doesn’t seem to effect him much, externally. Anything goes.

Anyway, they asked me what it’s like to be a parent (isn’t it obvious? That’s a dad joke), and I don’t think I performed well in the moment. There was some boilerplate stuff about highs and lows, happiness and sadness, good days and bad, but I don’t guess that sounds much different to them than what it’s like to be a kid. I should have had something in there about pressure, about every moment having the terrifying weight of potential life-shaping significance, the immediacy of having someone else’s distant future on your shop table – is this a chopsaw situation, or just a little sand-and-blow? About the fact that I am, indeed coming to that age where I start shrinking, because of that pressure and that weight, but that it’s more willful acquiescence than it is attrition. As a parent you do not lose mass, ever, but you lose a little density, and the universe around you never stops expanding. You shrink just by not keeping up.

But I didn’t say any of that. Not even close. I said the dull usual stuff and said “you’re excused, go get ready for school,” and just kind of went along hoping they didn’t pick up on the fact that often, being a parent isn’t so much about shrinking as it is about failing to be big when the moment calls for it. But then again, that’s why we have kids – to fill up the moments that are too big to inhabit alone.

Like breakfast.

They’re All Days Without a Woman

Just climbing into my trash can here.

If you come into the house and look closely, but squint a little bit, you might be able to just make out the diminishing line between cleaning up, and throwing things away. Though you’d be forgiven if it all just looked like the latter. Life reaches peak simplicity when the answer to “where does this go” becomes “in the trash.” Try it. You’ll sleep like a rock.

I lie to myself all the time in order to stay afloat. Kids really are a thing that have to be dealt with, such that parenting cannot simply happen as an addendum to other responsibilities. But I lie and say that it’s just another one of the things. The many things that make up a life. That’s kind of nonsense. What parenting is, is absolute proof that it is impossible to multitask. Breaking up a fight while doing dishes while making dinner while doing laundry – crap, I knew I forgot something – is not multitasking. That’s actually all one task. It is all sustained by the same pool of emotional and intellectual investment. To move from one of those things to the next, and back again, then to yet another, requires absolutely no adjustment of my energies or intentions. Fight, dishes, dinner, laundry. That’s four things right there, and it would be miraculous if the list ever stopped at that. But those four things are really all one thing. It is the mode that is your definition, and as long as nothing external gets introduced, it’s neat and tidy. It is the mode of being “parent,” and everything within it is related. Now let’s invite that other task over there. The one that looks hungry and cold on the doorstep:

  1. Break up a fight
  2. Do the dishes
  3. Fold the laundry
  4. Get dinner ready
  5. Start writing a 7 page paper for British Literature.

No way, right?  You cannot do that and the rest of the job in some sort of tag team symbiosis where everything gets in on the action and builds toward completion. The other 4 items on the list live together in a completely different compartment of consciousness. What does this all mean? What’s the big picture? How does this relate to harmony and value and identity and non-linear social progress? Not sure. But I do know that the “Day Without a Woman” didn’t get us any closer to the answer. I’ve met a few at-home dads over the last few years, and they generally get at least 5 days a week without a woman. They (we) would almost certainly prefer a different arrangement, but then again they (we) understand needs and compartmentalization and utility far better than your au pair does.

And so the mind also compartmentalizes. No matter how much I wanted to be able to start Writing that British Literature paper about the Lady of Shalott yester – GOOD EFFING GOD

Live and uncut – I was typing this because the morning was going cleanly. Dog fed and put outside, kids eating pancakes, things moving along. This is how quickly it goes to hell:

“Papa, can I have a side dish of fruit with my pancakes?”
“You already had some. You want more?”
“Yes, please. But I don’t really like more strawberries and blueberries.”
“That’s all we have, bud.”

Since then he has pulled books off of bookshelves, punched his sister, thrown toys across the house, and refused to get ready for school. Obviously, it’s not really about the fruit. He probably wants Cheetos or something, and knows that I’m just going to say no, and he’s afraid to ask and the whole thing is more than he can handle in his 6 year old mind. It’s hopelessly frustrating for him. Easy as 2+2=4 for us, harder than trigonometry for him. I know this, but no amount of kindness or empathy can change his brain chemistry such that we can resolve the situation with calmness and reason. We board up the windows and ride out the storm, and if we are really running out of time before a change in the winds, then we get a little physical.

The result of the whole thing, in this other little space over here, is that now I can’t write anymore, because I have to close that particular compartment completely, and open the “Dad” compartment. I’m sure as hell not going to be analyzing Tennyson against the backdrop of Victorian England.  Before I can do that I have to point the attention of my reader back to that non-linear social progress I mentioned earlier, and say that I can get back to my paper when I get a day with a woman.

The boy has just told me (mind you, because all we have for fruit is strawberries and blueberries) that he wishes I would “go in a trash can and never come out.”