Father’s Day, Part 2: An Open Letter To My Two-Year-Old Daughter, Who Still Can’t Read

Ava & The Monkey Man

Okay, Okay…so I’ve been a little slack in the blogging department.  In my defense I spend my days writing,  and once I’m done I usually want to lay comatose rather than scribble another sentence.

However, I promised last year I’d write my daughter a letter every Father’s Day, and promises involving my little girl are ones I don’t plan on breaking.  So here you go:

Hi Sweetie,

It’s around 10:30 on Sunday night, aka Father’s Day #2.  You’ve been asleep for a couple of hours, and tonight you were kind enough to let me read stories before bedtime.  For the past few weeks, Mommy’s been playing first string – you’ll push me out of the room, shut the door in my face, even preemptively say “Night night, Dada” when you’re still getting your nightly bath, as if it wasn’t clear enough to your remedial father that story time is for you and Mommy alone.  Now, your appetite for reading stories is voracious, and before you benched me I’ll admit there were a few nights when I would dread the endless requests for Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb.  Now that Mommy is top of the roster, all I can think about is how much I miss reading that stupid book to you over and over again.

(In fact, it would be fair to say that up until lately you didn’t seem to have much use for me.  I agree – the lack of lactating breasts was an issue, but it’s been a while now since Mommy turned off the taps, and while we have plenty of good days it’s pretty clear that in the order of important things in your life there’s Mommy, Lamby, Blankie, and running a distant fourth is the Dude Who Makes Monkey Sounds to try and make you laugh.)

I can recite this in my sleep, and have

I can recite this in my sleep, and have

Tonight, however, it was all different – Daddy got to pitch relief.  I’d like to think you were able to intuit this was a special day for me – although it’s probably more likely you were too exhausted to protest.  I’ll take it either way –  you really made this Father’s Day for me, beyond merely being born or letting me read you Moo Book.  You and mommy let me sleep in, gave me a couple of shirts, a wood chip smoker, salted caramels and nuts.   It made me realize what little time it takes to actually qualify for proper Dad Gifts.

Today’s best present, though, was just hanging out with you.  Your mom bought a soccer ball, and we spent a good part of the morning just kicking it around.  You were absolutely elated – although that’s not new, since elation is one of your default settings (that, and profound anxiety).   Seriously – your emotional responses lack any kind of volume control.  It’s a bit early to say if it’s just a phase or a lingering character trait, but if forced to choose between the two I hope it’s the latter.  When I think of the alternative – indifference, numbness, ennui – being consumed by your passions doesn’t seem so bad.  I like the idea of you being as excited about the life ahead of you as you are today.

It’s because all the knobs on your amp are cranked to 11 that it’s thrilling to be around you.  Just seeing you go nuts at discovering something for the first time (or in the case that rock pile we must always stop at on the way to the park – for the 30th, 40th, and 50th time), or realize you have the ability to climb steps on your own, or the fine motor skills to pick up beets with a fork – it’s a privilege to see it.   I may not feel so privileged in a dozen years when you’re accusing me of ruining your life, but right now I’m just happy to be there, present in the moment.

I was having dinner with an acquaintance the other day, who told me about a mutual friend whose child was born the same time you were.   My acquaintance said this father loves his daughter, but didn’t seem to get much joy out of being a dad.   It may’ve had something to do with the feeling he lost some freedom, and no longer had time to do the things he wanted.   I suppose I understand how he feels, but honestly it doesn’t square with me. I’ve done a lot of cool things, but at some point realized none of it was all that meaningful.  I was missing something, then you came along, and it was all good.

I couldn’t say precisely how that happened or why, and then I saw this line in an article about heroism, and it all snapped into focus: “There is a craving for obligation that is as profound as the craving for freedom. On some level everybody understands that you can’t have freedom and prosperity without sacrifice.”

I’m not saying I’m a hero, but it is my job to care for you, to help shape who you are, teach you right from wrong, show you how to treat others as you’d want to be treated, and to make whatever sacrifices necessary to make sure you turn out okay.  That’s my obligation, and because of it I don’t give much thought to opportunities I might be missing, or places I’m not going, or the interesting people I’m not seeing.  People waste a lot of time thinking about that stuff, and it blinds them to great things right in front of them.

But Me? I’m right there with you, and when I am I’m not stressed, or anxious, or distracted.  Sure, this could all change in ten years, but today as I stood there watching you kick a soccer ball, I swear I’d never felt so free.  That’s the gift you give me every day, and not just on special occasions.

Sleep well, sweetie. I love you, and I love being your dad.

Signed,

 

The Monkey Man

 
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First world problems.

You know what I’m talking about.  You can’t find the remote. Your hotel doesn’t have 24 hour room service. The flight attendant informs you they’re out of the tenderloin.  The hipster with the goofy beard wearing selvedge jeans and a stupid Zissou cap standing ahead of you in line for Moonrise Kingdom won’t stop talking about Ryuichi Sakamoto.  The young twerps at work make fun of you because you’ve never heard a Ke$ha song. You don’t have the time to take the family to Europe this year, so you’ll have to settle for a week at the cottage. Your new skin cleanser makes your forehead blotchy.  Your new Louboutins pinch your heels.

By their very definition, first world problems are not that problematic.  They’re the result of reaching the top of the food chain, the peak of Maslow Mountain.  First world problems are what you’re left with when you don’t have any real problems.

I’ve been thinking about first world problems a lot, mostly because that’s all I seem to have these days.  I have no issue with this whatsoever.   What does concern me is the realization that all of my problems may be of the first world variety, including and especially the ones that inspired this blog.   I mean sure, I was in a potentially fatal motorbike accident – which I danced away from with barely a scratch.   Yes, my girlfriend dumped me, but the fact is I was not that unhappy to see her go, and if she hadn’t I wouldn’t have Baby Mama and Ava today.     Yes, finding work in a new town was a challenge, but for the past year and half I’ve had more work than I can handle, and I’m pretty much booked through all of 2013.

So what the fuck was I griping about?

I believe some of the foremost qualities of a Better Man is a sense of humility and gratitude for the good things in his life – and the bad things too, because he learns from them.  The start of a new year is generally reserved for self-reflection and think about the events that unfold to affect the course of your life.  As I go back and read through all my blogs, so clogged with existential angst, about the only conclusion I can reach is this: my shit was not (nor has ever been) that heavy, and I’m really fucking lucky.

If there is a downside to this exercise, it’s that I still wonder how I’ll react when faced with a real crisis, like famine, disease, war, my daughter dating…or being forced to listen to a Ke$ha song. I hear that’s torture.

Death and the Munchkin

Yeah, I gotta rash too, man...

A few weeks back I was watching Seinfeld’s web series “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee”.  What happens is this: Seinfeld calls up a comedian friend to go for coffee,  comedian friend says yes, and then Seinfeld goes to pick him up in a classic car.  Seriously, that’s it – two middle-aged guys driving to a dingy cafe in a priceless automobile, only to bitch about their hyper-extended SI joint for ten minutes.   It’s exactly the sort of lazy, indulgent joint that a guy who never has to work again (but is kinda bored) would do – which is not to say I didn’t like it.  If Seinfeld’s entire ouevre has been to make bank on shows about nothing, then this fits right in.  You have to admire anyone who can provoke a shitload of attention by simply recording himself kvetching with buddies.

Of all the webisodes, by far my favorite is Seinfeld’s date with Alec Baldwin, and not just because Baldwin’s Burt Lancaster imitation slays, or because he had the best one liner in the entire series: Seinfeld greets Baldwin and says “You look good”.  There’s a pregnant silence as they shake hands, at which point Baldwin says “Are you surprised?”

Nope – the thing that got me was something one of them said to the effect of “I never thought about death until my kids were born.”  It’s perhaps the truest thing I’ve heard lately, mostly because I feel EXACTLY the same way. At no time before Ava had I EVER thought of dying – even when the possibility of dying was very real.  When I was struck by a car on my motorcycle, my thought as I flew through the air wasn’t “Oh shit – this is it” but “I hope I can ride the bike the rest of the way home.” That I might die or even be seriously injured were things that never really occurred to me.

From the moment they put Ava in my arms, however, I instantly had the sense that death was very close and very immediate. There she is, not more than 3 minutes old, and already I’m aware of the little time I have left with her:  by the time she graduates, I’ll be almost sixty.  Assuming she’s doesn’t get knocked up in high school I could be well in my seventies before she decides to get married, or have children (assuming any of that means something to her).   As I looked down at her tiny hands I realized there was a very real chance I wouldn’t be present for some of the biggest moments in her life, just as my dad hasn’t been present for most of mine.

But here’s the thing – the urgent sense that death stalks me like a collections agency doesn’t trouble me.  (Well, that’s not entirely true – the first few days after Ava was born I would bounce between boundless elation and crippling sadness – so eager to see every stop on her human safari, yet so sad that it might not happen.   It was like to going to a movie you’ve been jonesing to see knowing you’ll have to leave before the end.)

Today, I don’t feel bleak or morose, but motivated.  I exercise five times a week,  I get at least seven hours sleep, I drink 5 glasses of water a day, I rarely over-eat or get drunk – I’m even flossing now.

So I suppose death is teaching me discipline – as well as patience, and humility.  I think about all the times I let my ego influence my choices – took things way too personally when someone questioned my talent and judgment, or maybe dened me what I felt was rightfully mine.  All that shit seems silly now.  I used to mistake vanity for integrity, but no longer.   As Rik Elias said in the video from my previous blog post, I don’t need to be right, I choose to be happy.

I’m pretty sure Alec Baldwin and Jerry Seinfeld are trying to be Better Men and doing more or less the same thing I’m trying to do – eat their wheaties, do lots of core work, and manage their stress by keeping a sense of proportion about their problems. Essentially,  we’re playing the long game.  It’s all for one simple reason – so we can happily live to be an embarrassment to our grandchildren.

 

The Upside to Imminent Death

Watching Netflix can sometimes feel like reading the horoscope: a lot of times I find myself wondering WTF I’m doing.  I’m wading through piles of crap that doesn’t speak to me in any way at all, but just when I think I’m ready to give it up for good I come across something so perfect, so right for me in that moment it almost makes trudging through all the previous garbage seem worthwhile.

At least, that’s how I feel about this following clip.  I found it quite by accident – I can’t even remember what I was looking for when I came across it.  All I know is I’ve watched it five times now, and I tear up every single time.

It’s a TED Talks video featuring one of the survivors from the Miracle on the Hudson.  The gentleman’s comments are brief, his message is simple, but without getting too maudlin I believe what he says to be some of the best advice on how to live your life that I’ve ever heard.   I’m pretty sure The Better Man is the one who doesn’t need the threat of a plane crash to know that it’s advice well worth applying, starting right effing now.

 

A Man’s Gotta Know His Limitations

the old man and the seat.

Of all the things I get queasy at the sight of – needles going into my veins, blood (especially my own), Sex & The City reruns – by far the thing that skeezes me out the most is one individual’s public embarrassment.  When confronted with someone in the act of humiliating themselves, most people will say “Oh, I can’t watch”, but I Literally. Cannot.  Watch.  Every alcohol-induced act of obsession I witness on Bachelor Pad, every wedding I attend where the best man goes on a bit too long about how awesome the groom’s previous girlfriends were – I will almost always cover my eyes with my hands.  I can’t help it.  I’d probably try to pluck out my eyes if I thought I could re-insert them later.  I feel the kind of unease around another person’s public shame that most people reserve for massive rodents, sucking chest wounds or dismembered limbs.

I realize how unmanly this reaction is, and it’s a huge oversight on my part that I haven’t tried to fix it sooner.  That all changes right now.  I’ve decided to take a crash course in confronting other people’s worst moments: I will subject myself to video of people debasing themselves in front of an audience.  My hope is that with enough exposure I’ll be able to view such events with a flinty stoicism, maybe even respond with some kind of wry understatement, like “well, that’s just a goddamned shame.”   And I will start this shock treatment by viewing Clint Eastwood’s speech at the Republican National Convention.  For those who haven’t heard about it, basically what happened is this: Dirty Harry picked a fight with an empty chair and lost.

Last Thursday, Eastwood was invited by no less than the Mitt Romney himself to come out to the RNC and say a few words just before Romney accepted the nomination as Republican candidate for US President.  Now, it should be mentioned that EVERY SINGLE speaker at this event – from Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey to Senator Marco Rubio of Florida to former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice – ALL of them had to have their speeches vetted before going onstage. We’re talking about party stalwarts who’ve probably given thousands of speeches in the past, so for the most part they’re highly skilled public speakers unlikely to go off-message and bad-mouth Romney or have a Tourette’s moment and reveal their disdain for race-mixing or something.

Dirty Harry’s speech, on the other hand, was vetted by nobody. When Eastwood took the stage, not a single person knew what he was about to say. My guess is anytime someone tried to broach the subject he just squinted at them and they shat their pants.   Of course, by now I’m sure they’re wishing they’d had more intestinal fortitude, because Squint Eastwood came out and proceeded to ramble on in some kind of fugue state, ignoring desperate cues from Republican handlers to wrap it up. The Outlaw Josey wailed, engaging in a mini chamber drama with an invisible Obama perched on the chair .  It sounds like the equivalent of watching Calvin talk to Hobbes.

On its face it sounds batshit crazy and hugely embarrassing, which is why I’ve lacked the nerve to watch it so far. A part of me is praying this is a simple matter of a very witty speaker setting up a joke badly, or maybe misreading his audience – kind of like what Steven Colbert did at the White House Press Correspondent’s Dinner a few years back (or maybe not – Colbert’s monologue was amazing as much for its sheer ballsiness as its humor – it just would’ve been easier to laugh if the big butts of his jokes – the Bush family and every reporter  in Washington – weren’t right there, stony-faced, no doubt wishing a Secret Service Agent would cap him on the spot).    On the other hand, I see that #eastwooding (taking a picture of yourself arguing with a piece of furniture) is one of the top trending topics on Twitter, and @invisibleobama (which was started mere hours after the speech) now has almost 70,000 followers. My favorite tweet far? The Obama family portrait.

In other words, it sounds like Eastwood’s diatribe could be EXACTLY the kind of cringe-worthy material I need to build up my tolerance to public humiliation, and so…I shall watch.  Here it goes:

Okay…wow.  The speech lasts almost 12 minutes, and I only got as far the 3 minute mark before I was hiding my face in my hands.    That’s just…well…lemme try again.

Shit!  I barely got to 5 minutes that time, and I actually had to get up from the table and hide in a closet.  It’s not so much the chair thing  - he set his up joke up badly, but you can kinda see where he’s going with it.  Rather, it’s the blathering, the repeated derailment of his train of thought.  I’m realizing now that I should’ve started with something a little less…disappointing.  By that, I mean profoundly, unequivocally discouraging – because if Clint Eastwood can go all Crazy Old Man on bunch of unsuspecting yobs, then any one of us can.

Let’s be clear: I’m not exactly a fan of either his movies or his politics, but I’ve always been a huge fan of Eastwood’s comportment, especially in his winter years.  He hasn’t shouted racial epithets at the state trooper arresting him for DUI, there’s no incriminating mug shot featuring wild hair and a stained Hawaiian shirt, no awkward revelations of love children with the hired help.  He seemed to understand that there are few things sadder than a damned old fool, and while he seemed to be okay with getting old, even damned old, he sure as hell wasn’t going to be a fool.  He said as much about four years ago, shortly before his last movie Gran Torino came out: “This will probably do it for me as far as acting is concerned … You always want to quit while you are ahead. You don’t want to be like a fighter who stays too long in the ring until you’re not performing at your best.”

Those are the words of a man who understands the elegance of a quiet exit, someone with no interest in either spiking the football or leaving the house with his underwear outside his pants. Eastwood seemed to take his own advice: he knew his limitations, and he said he’d abide by them. If you think about it, it’s quintessential Eastwood . His entire ouevre is about minimalism, making do with less – first with his acting, then later with his directing.  It makes sense that he’s never had a Pauly D moment and declared his own awesomeness or otherwise put himself in a position to be ridiculed.  He even hoodwinked everyone with a moment of lucidity early in the speech, when he said that by the very nature of the word, conservatives in Hollywood didn’t go around ‘hot-doggin’ it.’

...an underwear-outside-the-pants moment is coming for every man, regardless of whether he’s Better or not
Of course, immediately afterwards he started shouting at a chair, thus dashing my hope that I might possess the self-awareness late in life to avoid a similar indignity.  Clint Eastwood used to make me believe it was possible for me to keep it together in my declining years, rather than complain about my prostate or yell at imaginary kids to get off the real chair on my imaginary lawn. Not anymore.

So bascially, Clint Eastwood’s speech is poignant evidence that I need a lot more practice before I look upon a person’s disgrace with the squinty-eyed detachment of…well, you know.  But there’s also a bigger lesson: an underwear-outside-the-pants moment is coming for every man, regardless of whether he’s Better or not.  The best he can hope for is the Reaper gets to him first, or at the very least his moment doesn’t happen on live television in front of a few million viewers.

As for Eastwood – well, for the sake of aging men everywhere let’s pray he’s realized his mistake and will promptly return to form instead of doing something else that’ll only make me cover my eyes again, like star in another movie or something.

(Eastwood will be starring in Trouble With The Curve, which hits theatres this month)

 

Father’s Day Note #1: An Open Letter To My Infant Daughter, Who Can’t Read

wrong sport, but you get the idea

I had to work out of town for my first Father’s Day, but fortunately I was able to Face Time on my iPhone with Ava and her mom.  I’m sure it’s embarrassing for others to watch me video chat.  I’m like an Amish kid on Rumspringa: “you mean, I  can actually see you…on my phone?  What kind of crazy future-world do we live in, anyway?”

In my defense, this wasn’t the only epiphany I had while chatting with my girls. Having Skyped with friends and family before, I realize (with no offense to other family and friends intended) there is NO ONE I want to video chat with except for my daughter and her mom. Only a relationship as intimate as the one between your partner and young child could sustain something that is at once both mundane and intrusive.  The other revelation was, as good as Face Time may be, it still isn’t enough -  at least until Apple comes up with an app that can let me smell my daughter’s head (baby cocaine) or feel the softness of her fat little feet, or accurately capture the frailty of seeing her alone in her crib (I’m certain Apple has a team of engineers working on this right now, along with the app for Joy and Fulfilled Dreams).  Those things linger too vividly in my memory to make any video chat truly satisfying.

So, while I’m happy to see them at the time, once it’s over I’m left with a kind of muted, low-level melancholy. It’s not loneliness per se – just a very vivid awareness I’m not where I should be, and I can’t be there Right. Fucking. Now.  As someone whose spent much of his life in semi-permanent grass-is-greener mode, I’m familiar with the feeling, but rarely have I felt it so acutely. Once the call is over I will literally ache for several minutes afterwards. A few veteran fathers I know have told me not to worry – with any luck Ava will grow to be as irritating as their kids, and then traveling for work will be a deliverance.  A small part of me hopes they’re right.

But until that glorious day when I can abandon my offspring with no thought for their wellbeing, I’m stuck with the Here and Now: it’s my first Father’s Day, I’m working all day but chatting with my family over my breaks, it’s wonderful and dissatisfying at the same time, and I have this compulsive need to feel more connected to them.

So what’s the best idea I have overcome this? Writing a letter, of course. I know – it sounds hopelessly anemic. But in twenty years or so I figure Ava will read this letter, and it’ll will be like my hand is reaching through time to tap her on the shoulder.   And then I thought that’s actually not such a bad idea – why not write her a letter every Father’s Day?

Here, then, is the first of my Father’s Day letters to my daughter.

 

Dear Ava:

You’re a little shy of eleven months as I write this, and Mom just sent me a video of you scrolling through the apps on her iPad*, finding the Peakaboo Barn game, and playing with it.  I wept with pride as I watched, and then realized that based on your intuitive display of intelligence if you don’t end up solving cold fusion or performing liver transplants as a career it may be due to some failure on my part.  Because you got mad skills, girl.

Which is not to say I’m terrified about the myriad ways I might warp your character, but as mortal responsibilities go, I firmly believe raising a child is not an area where you should just ‘wing it.” So while I’m making sure you don’t strangle yourself with the curtain cord or drown in the tub diving for your ducky, I’m also planning ahead.

Among the currently unnecessary parenting strategies I’m devising are what I might tell you when you ask me what I was like as a child.   Naturally, I want you to be proud of me, and at least until you’re fifteen you may actually find me worth respecting.  The question is how to achieve that magic combination of respect/awe/fear.  Saying that I was exactly like I am today but with less chest hair somehow seems inadequate, but at the same time there really isn’t much to report. My life as a child was relatively unremarkable, except in one regard: I was a spectacularly un-gifted hockey player.

I was so bad I’ve actually considered lying about my hockey abilities, and it’d be a pretty easy lie to pull off, since the only person who could discredit my story is your grandfather, and he’s no longer with us.   If he was still around, however, he would tell you I was uniquely terrible – I stick-handled poorly, I never kept my head up, and my skating was only marginally competent.

In spite of the indignity of having to watch me play hockey, my dad always came to the games, and (as far as I know) he never once denied me. Not even Jesus can say that.
 He knew this because, next to me, he was the only one present for every single one of my practices, and every single one of my games.   He would dutifully get me ready, drive me to the rink, and then squirm in his seat as he witnessed my lacklustre performance.    I don’t know if anyone asked him which one was his son, but there were probably days when it would’ve caused him less hassle to say he was a registered sex offender than admit he was father to the pathetic little squirt pitched forward, rapidly windmilling his arms across the ice.

In spite of the indignity of having to watch me play hockey, my dad always came to the games, and (as far as I know) he never once denied me. Not even Jesus can say that.  And grandpa did this FOR YEARS.  That, sweetie, is true love.  It’s choosing to cheer on your kid no matter excruciatingly embarrassing his performance may be.  It’s always being there and never betraying the feeling that you’d rather dematerialize on the spot than watch another shameful performance.  It’s finding the right combination of words needed to encourage without outright lying, all the while hoping I develop the self-possession necessary to realize I suck and choose to move onto another pastime.

The irony of all this is that for years I was a little peeved with your grandpa.  He was uncomfortable sharing his emotions, and it took me a while to realize he was trying to speak through his actions.  Every trip to the rink, every minute he sat in those bleachers shaking his head in amusement and horror was his way of saying “I love you with all my heart, and my life is richer because you’re in it. That’s what makes the tragedy of your performance bearable.”

This nonverbal reliability wasn’t limited to hockey.  When I finally recognized my own limitations and switched to skiing, dad made no judgment – he simply started taking me to the hill instead.  On my first date with the first girlfriend I ever had, he drove me to her house while commenting on how hard it is to dislike polite boys who look you in the eye when they say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’

Your grandpa pretty much created a cone of safety around me and your uncles and aunts, leaving us with the impression there was no problem, no crisis, no world-ending apocalypse he couldn’t somehow get us through.  And he was so low key about it that for a time it actually backfired – I became an ingrate, thinking it wasn’t enough.  It’s only recently (roughly the time since you’ve been born) I’ve really started to appreciate the time, commitment, and consistency required to persuade your kids you’re like air: that dependable, that necessary, and that unnoticed.

So I suppose I’m hoping to win your respect by pulling off some of the same sorcery for you that your grandpa did for me.  With enough time, I hope you can think of me as someone who doesn’t just give my word but backs it up with action. Until you and I get to that place, you’ll just have to settle for words, such as this:  before you came along, I didn’t think I had it in me to love anyone as much as I love you you and your mom.  Respect.

Happy First Father’s Day, sweetie.

Love,

Dad

*This could be the most unintentional endorsement of Apple products ever written. 

Master of Disaster

A devoted reader of this blog sent me a note the other day. It’d been so long since I posted last, he’d started to wonder if I’d suffered an aneurysm or something.  I was somewhat surprised by this, since…well, since until I received his note I thought I was the only devoted reader of this blog. What can I say? life as a father is pretty busy – plus I make my living writing, so writing just for this blog can feel like cranking out an overdue homework assignment. As Dad said “ once you sell it you never want to give it away free again.”

But I digress. My curious reader asked a question – what’s up with the Better Man? He may regret knowing the answer, since my current preoccupation is imagining the various kinds of disasters that might destroy my new family:  a massive citywide power outage that lasts for weeks and turns regular life into Lord of The Flies; malarial mosquitoes riding northward waves of climate change to dine on my beautiful partner; a flu pandemic that causes my little girl to bleed from every orifice;  a zombie apocalypse wherein I’m forced to watch flesh-eating humans consume my family’s brains; alien lizards disguised as humans pressing us into indentured servitude – wait, that’s the plot for a TV show.  As for the other stuff though…let’s just say Jack Handey was right; it’s truly sad that a family can be torn apart by something as simple as wild dogs.

There’s no limit to the kind of world-ending situations I can conjure up, for which I blame fatherhood.  These kind of thoughts never troubled me before, probably because deep down I knew the consequences of failing to prepare for mayhem resided with me and me alone.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve crossed the country on my motorcycle with no tools to fix a problem, or went SCUBA diving and maybe surfaced with substantially less than the recommended amount of air left in my tank.  I danced on a tight rope suspended over the abyss, with no thought for what happened if I sneezed.

Now I’m responsible for my gorgeous child and her lovely mother, and the thought that I may not have what it takes to protect them gnaws on me the way a zombie might gnaw on my leg in the aforementioned zombie apocalypse.

That’s why is I’ve spent the past weeks buying fire extinguishers and waterproof lighters, zipties and space blankets, first-aid kits and MREs. When I grocery shop I’ll buy a few more cans of food than I need, just for stockpiling. I’ve discreetly inserted pocket sized disaster guides in drawers all over the house.  I’ve pulled out the first aid manuals from my rescue diver classes and am trying to commit whole passages to memory.  Whenever I see Ava playing close to our angular, formerly cool glass and steel coffee table, it sends me into paroxysms of anxiety. Right now, I do not have a least three days worth of potable water in the house, and it troubles me deeply.

I suppose I’m trying to assert some control over potential chaos, or maybe cling to the illusion of control. Frankly, I’d be happy with either. A big part of facing any crises for a man is acting like you know what you’re doing, or as Kipling put in it “To keep your head when all about you are losing theirs.”   Poise under pressure is a wonderful male virtue, but if deodorant ads have taught us anything, what most men do these days is something author Michael Chabon describes as “flooding everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit, one whose source and object of greatest intensity is yourself.”  That Victorian code of Kipling-esque unflappability has been reduced to keeping your head when in fact you feel like you want to crap your pants.   Faking it isn’t such a bad thing, really – maybe it’s Machiavellian, but oftentimes the appearance of control over a crises can have the same effect as actual control.

There’s no way for me to know for certain, but I suspect my dad understood this and applied it successfully many times.  However, I realize my dad may not have been fronting so much as he was delusional.  As a farm boy growing up in the Depression he spent much of his life mastering all those tasks that nowadays we delegate to other people, simply because his family couldn’t afford to outsource the work. As a result my dad was as comfortable around tractor engines as we was around corporate business plans as he was installing electrical systems or leading team-building seminar or castrating a bull. By the time he was my age, my dad had five kids and over 100 employees working under him to worry about.  Aside from learning to swim or relating to me as a child, I can think of few things my father couldn’t do.

I can only imagine how self-possessed he must’ve felt, how unwavering his faith in his own ability to solve a problem.  That same confidence may’ve also cursed him with insanely dangerous hubris, the kind that could blind him to the jeopardy in which he put both himself and possibly his family. Now I do not want to diminish the legitimate confidence that comes from trial by fire (not just once but enough times to know that fire is truly your bitch). It’s just that when your whole life is knowing what to do and doing it, it can be easy to believe you got yourself out of a jam by thinking it through, when in a lot of cases the resolution of the problem had less to do with enterprise than sheer luck.

And oh man…how I WISH I could be that foolhardy, that completely divorced from reality! I’m like Joe Pantoliano in The Matrix, who rats everybody out to Agent Smith on the promise he be plugged back into The Matrix with no memory of how much real life sucks.   Sadly, men’s natural impulse to dissimulate, to overstate our abilities has been exposed to the world.  A whole subgenre of TV sitcom has evolved around the clueless (and portly) husband who thinks he knows what he’s doing and has to be saved by his smarter, long-suffering (and inexplicably hot) wife.  Volumes have been written about the masculine habit of refusing to acknowledge insufficiency and how it’s led to a generation of deeply dysfunctional males and other calamities (President George W. Bush, anyone?).

And yet, it’s universally understood that it is a paternal obligation to protect both the family’s physical welfare as well as it’s state of mind. Even when the truest part of you wants to freak out, you still have to know how to deal with things, and not betray ignorance if you don’t.  I’m not talking about not stopping to ask for directions, or refusing to read instructions when building IKEA furniture or anything like that.  Fronting is pointless because the stakes are low.   Matters of dire existential urgency, on the other hand, permit little room for doubt, and what qualifies as such is not always something the father gets to decide.

Eventually children come to believe their parents don’t know anything, but until then they have zero patience for a father’s honest confession that he doesn’t have a clue . There’s no way to tell a two year-old girl you don’t know how to save her, either because you lacked the skill or interest in knowing how.  Her worldview hasn’t expanded to contain that kind of ambiguity.  Simply put, a dad must be God’s Stand-In, with all the ominscience the gig requires, be it real or illusory.  The father who only thinks he knows how to fix something is a great punchline until something truly terrible happens, at which point no one – not his child, not the mother of his child – will find his candid admission of inadequacy all that funny.

So, in the absence of being allowed to pretend like I know how to handle shit, or successfully convince myself that I do, I stockpile cans of beans and Chef Boyardee pasta, I check and re-check the first aid kit, and I practice my impassive “crisis face” – the paternal equivalent of Blue Steel –  while at the same time praying I never have to use it.  Better still, I will pray I get to use Blue Steel in situations where the dangers are more imagined than real, until I no longer know the difference.  My family may depend on it.

REVEALED! An Awards Show Pries Out One Of My Deepest Secrets

Would you let this man host your awards show?

I hate watching award shows, for the most irrational of reasons – I’m mad I wasn’t invited.  Of course, even when I have been invited I didn’t really like going – they were a pointed reminder of how little I’ve accomplished in life.  So it’s no surprise I’m not watching the Juno Awards on TV tonight (for the uninitiated, the Junos are the Canadian equivalent of the Grammys but with fewer grandiose performances, or the Brit Awards but with fewer fights).

That said, I am curious to know how it goes – William Shatner is hosting this year.   Having someone as immune to embarrassment as he is is a brave choice – although many music snobs say the Junos have been immune to embarrassment for years, by virtue of nominating the band Nickelback over and over.

Which brings to something I’ve been wrestling with a long time.  In fact, I debated whether or not I should publish this post, but I’ve been re-visiting some of my old psych texts about Jung’s theory of the Shadow Self.  “The shadow personifies everything the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself” Jung writes.  Naturally, failure to embrace and assimilate the Shadow leads to all kinds of messy, fucked-up behaviour. I’ve seen the movie Shame – I know what can happen.

So I suppose if I’m to become a Better, more individuated Man (or at the very least, avoid getting caught in flagrante delecto with the neighbour’s cat) then I need to accept my failings and drag some secrets into the light.  And trust me, I’ve been carrying a secret – a big one. No, I haven’t killed a man.  I’m not raising a second family no one knows about.  I don’t have a sixth toe on my right foot.   My secret, to a lot of people, is much much worse.

I like Nickelback.

I declare it publicly with the same stomach-churning angst I might have if I were coming out to born-again Christian parents.  The reasons are obvious: while I may like Nickelback (and I hear there are others who do – perhaps we can form a support group) there’s is an equal if not greater number of people who dislike Nickelback – they’re the ones who say the Juno Awards is a farce for nominating them.  Actually, I suppose “dislike” is too mild a word – they hate Nickelback. We’re talking write-to-Congress hate, boycott-your-favorite-team-because-Nickelback-is-playing-halftime hate, white-hot intensity-of-a-thousands-suns hate.

no style, no respect....no problem.

A part of me understands the people who hate Nickelback, because I suspect I have the same musical tastes as they do.   I’m pretty much the epitome of a contemptible hipster music snob – a quick glance at my iPod reveals an intense devotion the Black Keys and Arcade Fire.  I love the Kinks, the Clash, The New York Dolls, The Stone Roses (first album, not second), Talk Talk, Talking Heads,  The Smiths, Wire, and Television.  I won’t listen to anything the Stones recorded after Tattoo You,  or anything Bowie did after Scary Monsters, or anything The Who did after Who Are You (with the possible exception of the song “Eminence Front”).   I love Eric B. and Rakim but think Rick Ross is a rap cliche blessed with a cool voice.  Lately, I’ve been obsessed with Lightning Hopkins, Shuggie Otis, and early Dionne Warwick. So while my admission is not quite an Only-Nixon-Could-Go-To-China moment as if, say, Jello Biafra were to admit he liked Nickelback, it’s still an anomaly.

At the same time,  another part of me harbours a certain contempt for the haters, because hating Nickelback is easy.  If you say “I DESPISE Nickelback”, rarely does anyone press you for a reason. Chad Kroeger was once asked why this was during a radio interview, and his reply was because they weren’t hipsters.  He could be right.  Of course, if one were to cull from some of their worst songs (such subtle, nuanced tunes like “Something in Your Mouth” comes to mind)  you could make a reasonable argument for how bad they are.  However, I doubt there’s a hipster in the world who’s taken the time to listen to that many Nickelback songs.  If you think about it, that’s kind of odd – considering that hipsters a) love irony, and b) define their tastes in opposition to what everyone else prefers, and c) Nickelback hatred is more or less mainstream, you’d expect a few might embrace the biggest band from Hanna, Alberta.  Mind you, hipsters have never fully grasped the irony of all of them trying to stand out by dressing the same, so loving Nickelback may be a bridge too far.

The point is there is no risk in hating Nickelback, while liking Nickelback can take some nerve.  In this way, Nickelback fans are not unlike the first Christians in Rome – in the face of such arbitrary, sometimes cruel disgust, their devotion requires both bravery and perhaps a measure of delusion.  (It should be mentioned that Nickelback fans aren’t casual admirers.  Most of the ones I know personally LOVE the band with a fervent, almost religious zeal – as if their passion is the armor they need to face the derision they get from friends, family, co-workers, strangers, etc.)

Unfortunately,  I can’t say I’m that brave or that deluded. It’s at this point I must confess to a significant advantage over both the lovers and the haters of Nickelback, for it is the source of my admiration: I’ve actually met the band.  Not just met them, mind you, but spent quality time with them – and not just them, but with their parents, their families, their friends, and their kids.

I worked at MuchMusic in Vancouver (where most of the band lives) for almost a decade, just as Nickelback was blowing up.  It was inevitable I would have to interview them on occasion, and as it turns out the experience was sufficiently pleasant for them to want to do it more than once, which led to a certain rapport.

Now, I should probably qualify this: by no means were we close. We were friendly, and have lots of mutual friends, but we are not compadres. Nowadays, I doubt Chad Kroeger would recall my name, although I’m pretty sure a wave of recognition might pass across his face should he see me.  Still, I’ve seen enough and know enough to have an informed opinion, and  I can tell you that if I like Nickelback it’s not because of their music.  I make allowances for their music because they are some the nicest, most decent rock stars you could ever meet.

First there’s Ryan, the handsome, affable guitarist who loves bluegrass music more than anything else, with the possible exception of his beautiful wife (and high-school sweet heart) Treana.    Ryan’s parents regard with him a pride that is in no way enhanced by his success – their support for him is boundless and unconditional.  Ryan’s brother (a chiropractor on Vancouver Island, last time I heard) is not envious, or resentful of his brother – they behave like best friends. Thanks to his family, Ryan is almost irritatingly well-adjusted.

Then there’s Mike, the other Kroeger in the band. Mike knows that unless you’re Sting or Flea, no one really gives a shit about the bassist, and  he’s fine with that.  He’d rather  stay at home on his ranch in Hawaii with his wife and kids. Mike’s approach to music is workmanlike – he’s conscientious, hard-working, shows up on time, and is polite with everyone.  That said, the most excited I’ve ever saw him get was when we discussed the Detroit Red Wings. Mike knows that as things go, it could be way worse for him.

Finally, there’s Chad.   I believe Chad’s the one guy in the band who really, REALLY wanted to be a rock star. Luckily he’s found guys he can trust to help him do it and who seem happy to let him hog all the attention.  Chad gleefully embraces every single rockstar cliche you can think of – gorgeous (ex-)wife, box seats at sporting events, garishly-decorated mansion with a fleet of Ferraris in the garage, and a full-size hockey rink in the basement.  But he is resolutely NOT an asshole – he’s simply living out the rockstar fantasy he envisioned for himself as a teenager.

For the most part,  Chad Kroeger possesses the same simple qualities he grew up with – a zen-like focus combined with a (near) puritan work ethic. And just like Chad Kroeger the Teenager, Chad Kroeger the Rockstar is still kind of insecure and wants to be liked.  That’s probably why people’s hatred of his band irks him the most.  All the posturing, all the Yoda-like pronouncements about knowing what it takes to write a hit song – partly it’s true, but mostly it’s fronting.

It’d probably be wise for Chad to ignore it, but I suppose he can’t help himself, and frankly I have some sympathy for him. I can’t imagine the paradox of his life, playing to tens of thousands of fans night after night then waking the next morning to speak with journalists who demand to know why everybody hates his band.  F. Scott Fitzgerald once said  ”the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”.   By this criteria you could make a case for Chad Kroeger being one of the smartest men in North America.

(I should probably include a paragraph about the drummer Daniel, but I don’t know him that well.  He replaced the old drummer Ryan, whom I knew a little better but was unceremoniously fired for reasons which are none of my business.   From what I can tell, Daniel seems nice and feels fortunate to be part of the group.)

If these guys were like Scott Stapp or those shitheads in Hinder, I might despise them as much as everyone else does, but I just can’t.
If these guys were like Scott Stapp or those entitled shitheads in Hinder, I might despise them as much as everyone else does, but I just can’t. Instead, I make a conscious effort to appreciate their music.  A producer friend of mine once pointed out the unusual song structure of their first big hit “How You Remind Me” – it isn’t verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-verse-chorus.   It’s more like the chorus repeated over and over, since the chorus is what most people remember (“The Hook Brings You Back” as Blues Traveller astutely pointed out).  The way I get through a Nickelback song is by listening for things like that. The artistic merit of their songs is completely lost on me, but I admire their craft.

But chances are I wouldn’t even bother with the clinical analysis if I didn’t like them as people.  The guys in Nickelback are living, breathing evidence that character (for me, at least) can atone for many sins, musical or otherwise.  In a world where plenty of folks act like contestants on The Apprentice, their example seems almost noble.  When I listen to Nickelback, I don’t hear music for scenesters to gnash their teeth to so much as four regular guys who by hard work and a lot of luck get to live a life most of us can only dream about. Frankly, I find that hard to hate.

Of course, this probably makes me the one fan the band doesn’t really want.  They may see me as the music-lover-equivalent of a pee-wee soccer coach, dishing out playing time to hopelessly untalented kids over the truly gifted athletes because the little losers have good attitudes.   They may not win any Junos tonight, their music will never come first in my heart, but Nickelback will always get an “I Played Too!” ribbon.

Anyway…glad I could get that off my chest.   If Shatner doesn’t embarrass himself tonight, I suppose that’s good.  If he does though, that’ll be amazing.  Not that he’d notice.

A Belated Valentine For Baby Mama

So sweet she puts you into insulin shock.

I suppose it’s a sign of precisely how new a new father I am, but it’s absolutely thrilling to have Ava here, in the world.  I know it’s a cliche even bigger than cops at donut shops, but seriously – every day brings a new miracle.  You want to see real wonder? Watch an infant make a noise like a dolphin, realize she made it, then repeat it over and over.  It kills me. I used to think the lighter I was, the farther I could travel.  I think of that time alone – riding motorbikes, SCUBA-diving with sharks, jumping from airplanes, partying with rock stars, etc.  Well okay…that stuff was a blast.  But it doesn’t compare to hanging with my little girl.  I look at all that other stuff and all I can think is I was just postponing my truest happiness.

Ava’s presence is so wonderfully all-consuming I have to remind myself that one year ago, both Baby Mama and myself were crippled by self doubt.  I can only speak for myself, but I had profound misgivings about my ability to be a father, and a provider.  More than that, I questioned our ability to parent well together.

Today, those fears seem quaint.  Most times I tell people I should’ve done this sooner, but I probably wasn’t ready until now. Really though, that’s bullshit – left to my own devices, I might’ve denied myself this pleasure indefinitely.   Part of me had to get pushed, and it was Baby Mama doing the pushing.

Which is not to say I was forced.  Rather, I was reminded by Baby Mama at crucial moments to set aside the burden of my responsibility (which I felt rather deeply – a prairie boy’s son can feel little else) and embrace the singular joy that comes from bringing a new life into the world.

Therein lies Baby Mama’s gift to me. I’ll worry that we don’t have a contingency plan for – well, for everything – nannies, teething, walking, solid food, solid poos, talking, discipline, daycare, school, extracurricular activities, dating, etc, etc.   Baby Mama is there to remind me stuff has a funny way of working itself out.  You take action when it’s required, try not get anxious or over-think anything, and spend the rest of the time setting an example by the way you lead your life. In this way, Baby Mama is proving to be highly adaptable, and not inflexible in her thinking – a courtesy she extends not only to our child but to me as well.

Seeing her grow into her role as both mother and partner fills me with as much awe as watching our child.   Challenges create character, and a vein has opened up within her, something deep and abiding. Let’s call it grace.  That grace makes her not only a wonderful mother, but a wonderful person to be around.  I’m reminded of this John Cusack monologue in the movie High Fidelity (a never-ending source of manly relationship wisdom), where he talks about what it was like with his girlfriend:  “She didn’t make me miserable, or anxious, or ill at ease. You know, it sounds boring. But it wasn’t.”

I look at my little girl and her mom, and I know I’m exactly where I want to be.  I’d try to say it with long-stem roses, but there’s not enough in the world for that.

Less is More: A Birthday Lesson from The Thin White Duke

About 7 years ago, I went to see a reunion concert by the modestly successful post-punk band Gang of Four.  My excitement couldn’t be understated –  these English blokes were huge to me, albeit for completely self-aggrandizing reasons. As effete music snobs, my high school friends and I would try to distinguish ourselves from the rabble by the obscurity of the music we listened to. In Saskatchewan circa 1986, where everyone dressed like they’d stepped right out of Heavy Metal Parking Lot, it was hard to find a band more obscure than Gang of Four.

No doubt the Gang of Four realized their prairie fan club could be named Gang of One and skipped playing my hometown, making this reunion gig the first time I’d see them live.  Sure, their sell-by date was twenty years ago. Sure, they had a lot of miles on their odometers. I didn’t care.  I was ecstatic – a feeling that lasted exactly one minute,  or about the time it took for the band’s aging lead singer Jon King to run out onstage, whirl about like he was Justin Timberlake on speed as he danced to the opening riff of “Damaged Goods -  then bend at the waist and almost vomit, too winded and out of shape to sing the first verse.    I imagine this was the post-punk equivalent of watching Muhammad Ali box in the 80s, long after he stopping floating like a butterfly and stinging like a bee – it made you a little sick inside to witness such a legacy-diminishing spectacle.

Which brings me to the subject of one of England’s newest pensioners – one David Robert Jones, aka David Bowie, aka my other musical man-crush.  Ziggy Stardust turned 65 today – a noteworthy event partly because of the man’s incredible impact on music, and partly because you hardly see him anymore.  His last album was almost nine years ago,  and with the exception of the odd appearance here and there, he’s largely disappeared from view – which is probably at it should be.

Now, there could be various reasons for why The Thin White Duke keeps a low profile. He had heart surgery in 2004, and there remains lots of speculation about the effects of his earlier, drug-addled lifestyle on his health.   It could be that (unlike Ali or Gang of Four) he felt he’d done what he needed to and had nothing more to add. More likely, though, Bowie has the self-awareness to realize that his best work is probably behind him.

Bowie himself said he needed to experiment to stay interested in his work, even if those experiments led to the kind of failure that compromised his success.  For a time in the 70s and early 80s, that bravery produced world-changing pop music. From about the mid-eighties onward, however, his gifts seemed to diminish.  His music still showed the same willingness to push boundaries, but those later experiments sounded exactly that – experimental.  A big part of success is making it look easy, and for Bowie the effort was starting to show. Certainly, there was nothing he did between 1983 and 2003 that could tarnish his enormous contribution, but certainly nothing that would add to it either.

Now, Bowie could’ve pulled a Jagger and made even more millions touring the world, basking in faded glory as he drew from his deep well of hit songs, However, as a writer noted in The Guardian today, that is anti-thetical to the man’s work:  “Bowie’s music was never about nostalgia, always the present, or, even better, the future.”

Instead, we have virtual radio silence.  It feels distinguished and elegant, which is in keeping with my perception of Bowie. The silence has had the effect of turning those rare occasions he does show up in public into events of epic proportion.  The Arcade Fire was already a great band with plenty of artistic credibility, but having Bowie get on stage and sing one their songs with them is now tantamount to a papal blessing.  Bigger than a papal blessing.

Herein lies the lesson of Bowie’s example, reaffirmed by plenty of Better Men such as J.D. Salinger or Terence Malick or (the recently-outed) Banksy, Don Mann, or my own dad; there is value in a low profile. The less often you speak, the more it means when you do. Bide your time, choose both your moments and your words carefully, and realize that trying to add to something great may only serve to undo its greatness (hello, George Lucas).  You don’t have to be a pop icon to apply that kind of lesson.