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.