Tag Archives: Parenthood

Finding Yourself Locked Out

For the first time, I locked us out of the house. It was Sunday evening and we were taking the kids to see a movie. I was the last one to step outside. I pulled the door closed behind me and immediately recognized what I had done. The wife had not brought her keys and we had no spare hidden away. My daughter insisted on checking everyone’s pockets for herself but it was no good. Home was inaccessible, nor could we get into the car. It was dark and getting cold, but we had our coats. At least it wasn’t raining. At least I had my phone and was able to call the emergency locksmith. Forty minutes and $140 later, we were back inside, and we made a later showing of the movie. All told, it was a very minor inconvenience, but it startled me: my inability to shelter my family or myself, the insecurity of our security, the ease with which we were exposed.

My daughter – the pocket checker – has recently discovered new anxieties. Mostly they turn on the question of her health. She suddenly feels funny. Is her heart beating too quickly? Is her breathing okay? Will she choke on her dinner? These fears, I’m sure, have something to do with her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis and the last two-and-a-half years of worry and chemotherapy and frank conversations between Mama and Papa in the kitchen. Her uncle also had a heart attack, and Papa himself talks a lot about trying to avoid one. A few days ago, putting my daughter to bed, she asked for assurance that she would wake up in the morning. She worried that by letting go of herself in sleep she might slip accidentally into death. Sweetheart, I told her, have you ever died in your sleep before? No? Don’t worry, then. You won’t lock yourself out of tomorrow morning by stepping into the dark tonight.

If man is born in freedom, with infinite possible futures open to him, the fact of living at all will require that he is locked out, finally, from nearly all of them. Sometimes further accommodation is simply not possible. We age and grow and so lock ourselves out of the womb, out of childhood, out of our parents’ home, out of youth. We make friends and pursue lovers and so exclude ourselves from other friends and other lovers. We make any number of choices, but eventually there comes a final door for each of us. We will step through it and it will close and we will find that we have left the key inside. Eventually, then, we do step into a night (cold and black, or warm and bright with stars – who can say?) which locks us out of tomorrow morning. Dithering in the hall, however, you find that straining to hold open multiple doors at once will get you – precisely – nowhere. Like death, life only happens when you lock yourself out.

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Wine in the Morning and Breakfast at Night

You might have mistaken the cars out the window for lumps of sugar. A series of winter storms had come down from the Gulf of Alaska and dropped enough snow on Seattle to enforce a five-day hibernation. Queen Anne Hill, where I lived, was cut off like an iceberg, its steep slopes sheathed in ice. No one went to work. Public buses were stopped. Truck deliveries were impossible. Soon the local grocer began to run out of food. My roommates and I listened to David Bowie and the Velvet Underground and drank Jim Beam and marveled at the transformation of the world outside. It was like a little holiday with a faint specter of starvation. That night I dreamed that Bowie circa 1973 was cooking a meal for us. The cupboards bare, he dropped armloads of colored felt puppets into a vat of boiling water. We would dine, he said, on puppet stew.

That must have been in 1996 or ’97, I’m not sure which. I was a few years out of college, poor and single and working at the bookshop. Back then I lived almost entirely on spaghetti and bagels, Bowie and The Velvet Underground. Seattle was still vaguely famous for its “grunge” music, but I was more interested in the music of my parents’ generation. Not that my parents ever listened to David Bowie or Lou Reed. In the sixties and seventies they had been more interested in The Beatles, Donovan, Simon and Garunkel, and The Mamas and the Papas. But my roommates and I kept The Velvets’ entire discography, and Bowie’s from Space Oddity to Diamond Dogs, on near-constant rotation. When working the front counter at the bookshop I listened to the same.

The obsession – though not the enjoyment – began to wear off. I started exploring jazz from the fifties and sixties (Davis, Coltrane, Mingus, Chet Baker, and Dave Brubeck) and modern Eastern Bloc composers (Gorecki, Schnittke, Ligeti, Arvo Part, and Peteris Vasks). Most of the latter I can’t bear anymore, having retreated to the more gratifying Baroque period – the music of which, along with a broader sampling of jazz artists, makes up most of what we play at home these days. This past Sunday, however, after hearing of Lou Reed’s death, I listened with deep satisfaction to an old Velvet Underground disc while washing the dishes. The leaves were piling up outside and things suddenly felt melancholy. I don’t know why we should be affected by the deaths of artists, most of whom are strangers to us and haven’t produced memorable work in years, but sometimes we are affected, a little.

Lou Reed was one of a handful of aging popular musicians whose passing might mark something for me. The others include David Bowie, Ray Davies, Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, and Paul McCartney. Like any good parents, my wife and I have tried to raise our kids to appreciate rock and roll of the sort they made. So far we’ve failed. Our son, age ten, is a rather good violin player. He’s been taking lessons for four years now and practices an hour each day. Mondays he plays with a local youth chamber orchestra. My daughter, eight years old, is showing some promise with the piano. I can’t even read music, so their achievements are, to me, miraculous. But they absolutely hate – detest – rock and roll. I expected to raise music snobs, but not this kind. I’m Beginning to See the Light came on while I was finishing up the silverware. You can imagine my dismay when both son and daughter covered their ears and stomped off to the bedroom to blast Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major.

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Phoebe Furbright – Chapter One

I’ve provisionally finished the chapter book I was writing for my daughter and will finally read it with her this weekend. She’s thrilled. Hopefully she’ll still be thrilled when we’re done. The project has taken me three months and quite a few cups of coffee, working at it two nights per week between 9pm and 2am. The manuscript clocks in at just fewer than 18,000 words and I feel pretty good about it.

As mentioned before, my daughter wanted a book about cats, so that’s what I’ve given her. Phoebe Furbright is the story a girl cat who wants to be an ornithologist and who, accompanied by her brother, launches a research expedition in a homemade hot air balloon.

I don’t know if the story will have much appeal beyond its specially intended audience, but I know what my own children like in a book. They like to laugh. They like adventure and suspense. They like to catch references and inside jokes. They like books that challenge their vocabulary and treat them like “miniature adults.” They do not like to be talked down to by their reading materials.

Among the chief joys of raising children is reading children’s books. My personal favorites include The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose, James Marshall’s George and Martha books, Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth and Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series. I’m an equally great admirer of William Steig (Doctor De Soto, Svlvester and the Magic Pebble and Abel’s Island especially) and Bernard Waber (for Lyle the Crocodile and A Lion Named Shirley Williamson).

I don’t expect that Phoebe Furbright will ever find its way into any pantheon of children’s literature, but I do think it’s fun. And since I’ve got nothing better to post here today I’m going to share the first chapter. The story opens with a dinner table conversation:

CHAP. I.
Our heroine divulges her eccentric professional
ambitions over dinner and Father delivers a misbegotten
lecture on the subject of ‘True Cat Nature.’

Phoebe Furbright’s father said that it was uncatlike to study birds rather than hunt and kill them. They were sitting at the dinner table over steaming plates of poached herring in wine sauce: Father, Mother, her brother Alexander, and Phoebe herself, who had just informed them that she would be an ornithologist when she grew up.

“Birds,” Father said in the voice he always used when he wanted Phoebe to get over some silly notion of hers and be realistic for once in her life, “are for hunting. It’s simply not cat nature to study birds. It’s cat nature to stalk and to strike! Anyone would tell you the same, Phoebe. Why it’s preposterous, really! The very idea of a feline ornithologist!”

“But you work at an office,” said Phoebe, who was a slim gray tabby with big yellow eyes, “and we buy all our food at the grocery store like other civilized cats. We’re not tigers or leopards. When was the last time you went hunting, Father?”

“Why – I’ve been hunting plenty of times… Plenty!” he said, frowning. “But that’s irrelevant… It’s the principle of the thing! The hunter’s instinct is a part of the feline soul! A cat is meant to be fierce.”

Father went on to tell Phoebe and Alexander – for the hundredth time – about the day that True Cat Nature was once and for all revealed to him.  It was winter and he was walking round the block near his office, in deep contemplation of some intractable business problem, when he looked up and saw a sparrow perched on the leafless branch of a tree that had recently been planted by the city authorities. His life changed forever.

“Why, I got an itchy feeling all over,” he said, “and before I knew it I was snarling like a savage! I crouched down on all fours with my ears turned back. I was actually stalking the thing! I lunged at it – and missed, unfortunately… But what a thrill! I didn’t give a fig what the other toms walking by in their suits and ties thought of me. Civilization has its limits. You can only hold down cat nature so long before it comes yowling back. That’s what I say!”

Phoebe pursed her lips. She loved her father very much. He was a good fellow, hard-working, and he provided well for the family. But she wasn’t sure she agreed with his philosophy on this particular point.

Mother explained, with a wink, that Father clung to this sense of essential wildness because it made him feel less constrained by work, marriage, parenthood, and cat society in general. Deep down, Father simply knew that he was a bird killer – even if he had never actually killed a bird before – and the thought made him feel warm and comfortable inside. “It reconciles him to civilized life,” she said.

Father knew when he was being teased, of course. Not that he minded much when Mother teased him, but he batted the air in her direction as if she were nothing but a bit of string dangling there.

“Now, now, beloved spouse,” said Mother, patting Father on the head and emitting a soothing purr. “You are a wonderful tom and the love of my lives, with more than your share of excellent qualities, but you know very well that you are no Uncle Jackson-Harris.”

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Three Paragraphs of Humor

I had a friend in college who would shut himself in his bedroom every afternoon and force himself to laugh at nothing in particular for exactly five minutes. It was one of the “Daily Habits of Joy and Excellence” that he’d recommended to himself and posted on the wall of his apartment: laugh for five minutes each day. Listening to him from the other room, you got a strange feeling. To think that you lived in a world where people would shut themselves in their rooms and laugh alone. How funny, or sad.

My son, age nine, is a collector of jokes. That his father isn’t a collector of jokes is one of the great disappointments of his childhood. He only likes funny books these days. His favorites include Garfield comics and Tom Sawyer. He recently wanted something new to read so I handed him my copy of Code of the Woosters, warning that it may be premature. He gave it up after only two pages, bogged down by Bertie’s euphemisms for cocktails (“morning revivers,” “tissue-restorers”) and the implausibility of anyone being named Gussie Fink-Nottle.

Humor, I think, is something we aspire to more often than achieve. But successful humor frequently comes from failure, from incompetence, from a sense of our inadequacy to the task of living – and life’s inadequacy to the task of being lived. Think of Cervantes, of Rabelais, and of Laurence Sterne. Among great American humorists I count Melville, Thomas Berger, and Peter De Vries. A fool on the stage means the play’s a tragedy, but it’s the jester who keeps us company when we’re wandering the barren heath.

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Little People and Big People

If the fog was thick we might not see the ocean, but the one infallible sign that we were nearly to my grandparents’ house on the coast was the sudden, strange blanket of ice plant that grew in the sandy soil on either side of the highway. Being small I liked to imagine myself big and this sort of landscape helped. In the afternoons I was a giant running up and down the dunes through the miniature forests of ice plant. At dinner I tore up broccoli oaks from the mashed potato hills and crushed them between my molars.

We spent two nights on the central coast last weekend. At the local toyshop in San Luis Obispo my daughter picked out a Playmobile set with a little girl and boy like herself and her brother, but three inches tall. We spent an afternoon at the beach. The wind was cold and our ears began to hurt so we explored the sand dunes instead. My son and daughter, little people just moments before, ran towering over the familiar forests of my childhood.

We went to see The Secret World of Arrietty. The movie is based on the Borrowers books by Mary Norton and concerns a family of tiny people who live beneath the floorboards of a house. In one memorable scene Arrietty steps from a small borrower-sized passage into the vast cavern of the humans’ kitchen. We experience a similar change of scale, perhaps, when we enter the high airy theater where giants and giantesses act out (on the screen) their literally larger than life conflicts and romances. On the big screen even little people like Arrietty are brobdingnagian.

Coincidentally, I just finished reading T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose about a lost colony of Lilliputians living on a dilapidated English country estate. White tells us in the first paragraph that his heroine, Maria, was “one of those tough and friendly people who do things first and think about them afterward. When she met cows, however, she did not like to be alone with them.” I kept expecting the phantom cow (mentioned twice more) to arrive on the scene at a crisis in the plot. It never did. Rather than a Holstein or Jersey, this one was a MacGuffin.

Like Alice we find ourselves little one moment, large the next, then little again. These transformations follow their own schedule, you can’t plan them. The professor in Mistress Masham says that “people must not tyrannize, nor try to be great because they are little.” Trying to be little because you are big is just as hopeless. My son recently told me that the “Kid Community” (himself and his sister) wanted rights. What rights do you want? I asked. “We want to be treated like miniature adults,” he said. When I was eight years old I thought I was a grown-up too. Now, at thirty-eight, I feel more like a child.

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Marginalia, no.240

To safely get close to gorillas in the wild, it’s wise to act like a gorilla yourself.

~ Mary Pope Osborne, Good Morning, Gorillas

My six-year-old daughter marks up her books with pencil, takes notes, even copies out important passages like the one above. On finding this particular note it occurred to me that she’s not generalizing its advice very well. She doesn’t purr with the cat or chirp at the neighborhood squirrels. Maybe that’s for the best. But then I realized: she’s marking her books with pencil, taking notes, copying out important passages... I am the gorilla in question.

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Marginalia, no.189

Monsters of men as we are, dogs, wolves, tigers, fiends, incarnate devils, we do not only contend, oppress, and tyrannize ourselves, but as so many firebrands we set on and animate others: our whole life is a perpetual combat, a conflict, a set battle, a snarling fit.

~ Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

Among the chief joys of parenthood is hoodwinking children into the belief that the world is something better than “a snarling fit.” It’s a deception, I think, that can end by being true. Acquaintance with life’s brute zoology is forced on us all sooner or later. What the world never teaches is to presume well of others and be charitable toward ourselves. Retreat to a peaceable kingdom later in life is only possible if you start there to begin with.

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