Daddy goes out drinking

On Friday night I sped through story time and rushed Jay into his crib with a kiss, a hug, and a promise to see him in the morning.  Then I grabbed my keys and wallet, said goodbye to Caroline, and headed out the door, bound for my first night on the town since Wally was born.

I’d recruited my college roommates Rob and John to come with me to a performance by a local singer-songwriter named Suzie Brown, who I’d just finished profiling for an upcoming issue of Harvard Magazine.  Brown’s story is an interesting one.  For more than a decade she marched through intensive training to become a cardiologist, all the while harboring a honey-dipped singing voice.  Finally, she decided she couldn’t ignore her desire to sing anymore so she took a part-time clinical job and devoted the balance of her days to her singing career.  Her first full-length album, “Heartstrings,” came out this spring and it’s a fair bet it won’t be her last.

That night she was playing at the Dawson Street Pub in Manayunk, on the outskirts of Philadelphia.  It was a hot night, as they all are these days, and probably the most humid of the year. It took us a little searching to find the bar, and as the 9pm start of the show drew near I began to worry that we were going to miss it.  But when we arrived it became clear that none of the musicians were even there yet, which I took as a reminder that the rest of the world doesn’t move to the same urgent schedule our family does.  The bouncer told us they had a new beer on tap that night—a double IPA called the Cape of Good Hope from the Yard’s Brewing Company.  We hadn’t been there three minutes before the first round hit the table.

***

For the first five months after Jay was born I didn’t have anything to drink at all.  There were a few reasons for my tee totaling, but the main one was this: Life as a new parent was extremely tight as Caroline and I tried to juggle her dissertation, my freelance career, and an infant we didn’t really know what to do with.  Our days felt so precarious that at times a single beer seemed like it would be enough to send us into ruin.

Gradually, though, Caroline and I found our rhythm as parents. We started going out to the movies again, having friends over, drinking wine with dinner.  I remember the first time I got buzzed as a parent.  It was a dinner party at our apartment.  I’d had a few glasses of Cabernet when all of a sudden I thought about Jay, then five-months-old, asleep in his bassinet down the hall.  After being so focused on him ever since he was born, it felt strange that the alcohol clouding my brain was now standing between the two of us.

But I got over that feeling, and in the months before Wally was born both Caroline and I had resumed social lives that approximated the ones we’d had before becoming parents.  I had a couple good friends in town who didn’t yet have kids and liked to stay out late.  On a handful of occasions I stayed out with them, and in the wee hours of the night, with the jukebox playing, my friends at hand, and a son I loved asleep back at home, I’d feel like I’d managed to have my cake and eat it, too.

That, of course, didn’t account for the hangover.  There is no more merciless a being in the world than a toddler; the next morning Jay always made me pay.  Not on purpose, of course.  It’s just that there’s no explaining to him, “Daddy’s head is killing him right now so maybe we can read Horton Hears a Who another time.”  So I’d drag myself out of bed four hours after I’d climbed into it, take some aspirin, and begin counting down the minutes until naptime.

***

Suzie Brown went on at 11pm, by which point everyone at our table was in the mood to tap our toes. As she sang, we chatted and listened, got up and danced, headed to the bar for another trip around the Cape of Good Hope.  It was only a little later, when I went outside to get some air and chatted again with the bouncer, that I learned that the amber liquid we were swilling was 8.1% ABV.

There’s a point in every good night at a bar where the world outside fades away and the night starts to feels endless.  As Suzie was wrapping up her set I looked at the time and hazily calculated that Jay had been asleep for more than five hours already, while here I was, deep in the throes of a night that had nothing to do with him. It always amazes me how much life can transpire in the time a toddler sleeps.

By the time the music wrapped our table was covered with pint glasses.  We reluctantly headed to the door as the band members coiled audio cables and the bartender recapped the gin.  The cab ride home was a blur of street lamps and warm air lapping at my face through the open window.

Back upstairs in our apartment the door to Jay’s room was shut, just as I’d left it hours earlier.   With a pang it occurred to me that he’d already probably begun his ascent into waking. Caroline and Wally were asleep side-by-side in the bed.  I remembered, then, that I’d had a few too many IPAs to co-sleep with Wally, so I pulled the couch cushions onto the floor and laid out below him.

The next morning I must have slept through the declarations Jay makes each morning from his crib, because when I awoke he was standing right over me.  I squinted at him through the sunlight and he looked at me quizzically.  Caroline leaned over and whispered something in Jay’s ear and a broad smile broke out on his face.  He pointed a finger at me and in an excited voice he said, “Daddy, have you no shame!”

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“Hit me”: Jay, Wally, and “The Tree of Life”

Last week I did something I haven’t done in two years and probably won’t do again for two more: I went to see a movie without Caroline.  (Basically, if I’m going to ask her to take a bullet/ put both boys to bed it usually has to be for something that I can’t do just as easily two months later on Netflix.)

The flick was “The Tree of Life,” which is only the fifth movie the legendary director Terrence Malick has made in the last 38 years, and which has been hyped in some quarters as just about the greatest artistic achievement in the history of film.  I went to see it partly for the hype, partly because my cinephile pal Andrew told me he’d disown me if I didn’t, but even more because “Tree of Life” concerns a topic that I think about a lot these days.

Brad Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, a strict, hard-driving dad in a small Texas town in the 1950s.  He wants his two sons to be tough—to grow up to have the grit to bend the world to their desires—and he’s especially demanding of his oldest son, Jack.  He hounds Jack into performing menial tasks, like weeding the lawn or closing the screen door gently, with scrupulous perfection.  And in the most widely replayed scene from the movie he challenges Jack to prove his mettle by punching him in the face.  “Hit me, hit me,” he says, slapping his chin.  When Jack can’t bring himself to do it, his father bats him humiliatingly to the ground.

Not surprisingly, Jack grows to hate his father.  As a young child he’s able to bear his father’s will, but as he grows into adolescence he comes to resent his domination.  In one ominous scene an emerging Jack stands over his father as he lies on the ground fixing a car.  We hear him think, “Please kill him. Let him die.”

I saw the movie with two friends and we all agreed that we’ve never seen a movie capture the sensations and perspectives of childhood better than “Tree of Life” does.  But we also had our separate reasons for sitting rapt for two hours. One friend said afterwards that Brad Pitt’s character had had him thinking about his childhood growing up with a stern Lebanese-immigrant father who’d once told him and his younger brother, when they were still in elementary school, “After your mother and I are dead you’ll only have each other.”

For my part, I spent the entire movie thinking about Jay.

I haven’t figured out yet how strong a presence I want to be in his life.  Two nights ago Jay had a tantrum in the living room just before bed.  After ten minutes of failed coaxing I hoisted him, kicking and screaming, off to bed.  On the short walk to his room he cried out, “Noooo Daaady, noooo,” in a voice that would have made you think I was making him watch as, one at a time, I set his toys on fire.

Even as I was carrying Jay off to bed I was thinking about how intense an experience this must be for him.  Here he was, being forced to do the one thing in the world he least wanted to do, by this overwhelming force of a person called his Dad with whom, once he gets a good grip on you, it’s all over.  It’s a necessary role sometimes when you’re raising a toddler, but it’s not one I’m completely comfortable with.

Well before Jay was born, before Caroline and I even knew the sex of the child we’d have, there was a part of me that hoped we’d have a girl.  A girl, I thought, would mean a simple relationship: I’d tell her how pretty she was, be a little overprotective when she was a teenager, and walk her down the aisle when she was an adult, grinning the whole way.

But a son is a more complicated thing.  Jay will be taking a lot of his cues about how—and how not—to live his life from me, and I don’t have complete confidence that either a) I’ll give him the right cues; or b) that he’ll know how to read them. I know there will come a day when he gets around to judging me and the job I did raising him.  I can only hope that by that point I’ll have taught him at least what it means to be compassionate.

At the same time, I like that there’s no sidestepping what it means to be a father.  There is a part of my personality that prefers to sit back rather than act under conditions of uncertainty—to do nothing instead of taking the chance that I’ll do the wrong thing.  But when it comes to raising a child there’s no sitting back, no waiting until later to figure it out.  Every day Jay wakes up and Caroline and I go live again, whether or not we know our lines.

Under these conditions the best I can think to do is be aware of how big an impact my actions have on Jay and Wally, and to think and reflect and try and get better each day at being a dad, while at same time keeping in mind that one day they might make a movie about me.

James, who's afraid of shaving cream

Last week my son James had a funny reaction to seeing my face covered in shaving cream. It prompted me to think about the things James has been afraid of during his first 16 months, and to consider how the reasons he fears compare to the reasons I fear. I talk about those in an essay appearing this morning at The Millions:

These are the things my son James has been afraid of in the 16-months that he’s been alive: The grinding blender, the roaring vacuum, disembodied voices on the speaker phone, the time I pantomimed a broken leg, being put to bed alone in his crib. Most recently he ran in fright from shaving cream.

Reflections on Fear, Freedom and Growing Up

I’ve got an essay up at The Millions today. It was inspired by some similarities I’ve observed reading my brother Ryan’s emails from abroad and watching my one-year-old son James cruise around the living room. I tie the two of them into my life, noting that these days I dont explore as widely as I used to:

Recently two people who wouldn’t seem to have much in common—my 26-year-old brother and my one-year-old son—have both had me thinking about wonder and fear, and how their experiences of those two things are similar to each other’s, and different from my own.