Monday, April 1, 2019

Bjorn Again


I am about as progressive a parent and partner as you’re likely to meet. I believe that when it comes to gender roles, “traditional” is just code for “repressive and patriarcal”. I cook (well). I clean (poorly). I shop. I mend. I darn. I can take a child’s temperature without a thermometer. I also drill. I hammer. I change flat tires. I hang things on walls. I can assemble Ikea furniture without directions. I know that gender is not binary.
So it is with full awareness my modern, limousine liberal, quinoa-eating ethos that I say that no man should ever wear a Baby Bjorn.

A Baby Bjorn is a deeply emasculating device. It is a full-frontal vasectomy. A canvas chest vagina. Which makes it all the more remarkable that I gladly wore one almost daily for nearly two years. Such was the nature of my daughter’s neediness.

From her earliest days, she needed to be held, begged to be bounced, demanded to be in physical contact, pleaded to be on the move. This is what we told ourselves. There was no other way to account for the wailing; the desperate, pleading, incessant cries that seemed to dominate her waking hours.

My wife began to believe that the emotional and physical trauma of our daughter’s newborn illness had created a primal need that could never be satisfied by ordinary parenting measures. Stroller rides. Soft music. Sound machines. These would never be enough to soothe her.

She needed to be worn.
Constantly.
We lived in San Francisco’s Castro District for the first five years of my daughter’s life. As I wandered the street of our neighborhood, keeping her in constant contact and motion, I quickly learned that having an infant strapped to his chest makes a man more appealing. I’m a decent looking guy. I’d become accustomed to, even flattered by, being hit on by men from time to time. The Baby Bjorn, however, seemed to turn me into a kind of oil-anointed, shirtless Jake Gyllenhaal. I recall an aimless, nap-preserving perambulation that took me past the Twin Peaks Tavern, the historic gay bar on the corner of Market and Castro. It’s regular denizens, older men, bears, and lifelong couples, had rarely noticed me in the past. This day, however, my Bjorn-ed child acted as an eye magnet. I felt their penetrating gazes; their recognition of me as a man who could make a commitment, a tender man unafraid to be vulnerable, confident enough in his masculinity to mount a baby girl to his chest and parade through earth’s gayest neighborhood. Through the bar’s open windows, I heard a hushed voice with a central casting lisp coo, “Oh, that is so adorable.” The voice’s longtime companion responded, “You know, babies are the new pugs.”
Such is the power of the Bjorn.
In many ways, the Bjorn is a gesture, a sacrifice made to the mother of one’s child. It is a man’s way of saying, my darling, you forced a watermelon through your vagina, so I will wear it on my chest. The act is somehow totally uncalled for and not nearly enough. I wore my daughter around the house and in the backyard, while feeding her from a bottle, washing dishes, and pruning a camellia bush. My wife hardly noticed. And she shouldn’t have.
The Bjorn may have been an acknowledgment of her sacrifice but I didn’t really wear it for her. When my daughter was in the Bjorn, she slept. She breathed onto my skin, the condensation of her warm breath collecting on my chest hair like dew drops. Her head lolled and her nose rooted against me. The wet powder smell of her strawberry hair filled my nose, imprinting on me the joyous unexpectedness of my commitment to her. In the Bjorn, she was at peace. And in her peace, I found mine.
As a new parent, I was naive, terrified, and inept. No classes, books, or advice could have prepared me for what I needed to know. My daughter unwittingly prayed upon my fears and weaknesses. Her neediness overwhelmed me. She took everything I could give her, and then she demanded more. In my most exhausted moments, my most desperate hours, holding her was the only way I could be sure I was helping her. When I was too tired to hold her, I strapped her to my body. And she stayed there, secure and asleep in a navy blue canvas pouch, defying the gravity that threatened to bring me to my knees.
The Baby Bjorn saved me. It held her when I couldn’t. It helped me be the parent she needed me to be, even when I didn’t want to be. It taught me that what I wanted didn’t matter. How I looked didn’t matter. What people thought of me didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was her. I’m grateful for my Bjorn lessons.
And I never want to wear one again.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

What I Learned in Tahoe

For the past five hours, I have been sequestered in a turret of a bedroom, frozen like a racoon in a compost bin, reading Don DeLillo, and periodically checking Twitter to see if the Giants have landed Bryce Harper. Put another way, I‘ve been hiding from my teenage daughter.

It is a frigid day in mid-February. The schools in our town are closed for something the kids call “Ski Week,” and I call “President’s Week,” but is really just a random week off from school coming on the heels of the two weeks off they just had a little more than a month ago, which, when I think of it that way, seems like a recipe for ending white privilege through the systematic under-education of an entire generation of rich kids. Fight the power!

At any rate, for as many years as they've been in school, my older children have returned from this pointless week away to be regaled by their classmates with Tales of Tahoe Adventure. Monday arrives and my cruelly under-skied children slink to their classrooms where they get to listen to McKenzie, Tucker, Finn, Hunter, Ella, Emma, Sofia, Sophia, Tyler, Taylor, Max M, Max L, Zoe and Liam swap stories about Squaw, Northstar, Ikeda’s, Donner, North Shore, South Shore, mid-mountain, groomed powder, and twenty-five other words and phrases that mean absolutely nothing to them. And because I am the person I am, I have never once felt guilty about depriving my children of experiences that their classmates seem to regard as a Southern Marin birthright, on par with good public schools, homeownership, Patagonia jackets, and inheriting your dad’s A4 on your 16th birthday. In my mind, forcing my children to spend a boring week at home is an act of inspired parenting.

Until this year.

My daughter, in particular, has reached an age at which her boredom is something she inflicts upon us. She sits at home for days on end and somehow her mother and I feel inadequate. Why don’t you go for a bike ride? Maybe there’s a friend in town whom you could call? How about picking up a book? Want us to sign you up for that basketball camp? All of these questions are met with a mild grunt and the same expression she makes when we ask her to pick up the dogshit in the backyard. Of course, what we’re really saying is, why aren’t you more inspired? Actually, that’s what my wife is saying. What I’m really saying, because I see all of my children’s shortcomings as a function of my inadequacies as a parent, is I’m sorry I failed you.

So here we are in Tahoe.

It is 14 degrees outside. It’s been snowing for hours. We are snowed-in the house that our incredibly generous friends have given us for the week. (Perhaps a more experienced Tahoe Dad would be brave enough to try blasting his Subaru Outback through the snow banks, but I am a Tahoe Coward, another reason we never come up here.) And I’ve just realized that I am experiencing my first real vacation with my teenage daughter. I am not handling it well.

Since our daughter was born, my wife, who has a very holistic, Esalen-esque sense of the universe, has been saying that our oldest child possesses a kind of overpowering spiritual energy. When she says this, I typically nod and passively agree with her premise, mostly because my wife is very sensitive to such things, but also because my psycho-spiritual compass is about as finely tuned as Mitch McConnell’s.

Yesterday I drove up I-80 with my 14 year-old daughter, her eighth grade classmate, and my 11 year-old son. (My youngest child and her mother are happily ensconced at home in what I imagine is our largely deserted town.) The drive up was relatively benign, set to a soundtrack of my daughter’s insipid Spotify playlist and three “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” podcasts. It took a little over three hours, including a stop at the In-N-Out in Davis. We arrived by 3:30. I unloaded the car as the children attempted (and ultimately failed) to build a sort of toboggan run in the woods behind the house, foiled presumably by a lack of experience and the roughly 834 inches of snow that have fallen in the past two weeks.

They returned to the house two hours later, having left the sleds and shovels on the hillside, and proceeded to shed snow-covered clothes in the entryway before coming upstairs and leaving the front door open, because, again, they have no experience in sub-freezing weather. After a not-so-gentle lecture from me about energy efficiency and how stuff left outside tends to get buried in snow until May, the girls settled in ungratefully for some chips and salsa and stared at their phone screens for two more hours, while the boy and I rewatched “Solo: A Star Wars Story” on Netflix.

Soon I was heating up the lasagna that I’d personally assembled at 7am that morning and serving a lovingly homemade meal to three vacationing children. The boy thanked me. The girls did not.

After I did the dishes, wary of the eye rolls that would ensue if I suggested the kids do it, I offered another movie of the girls’ choosing, assuming, of course, that they could find something appropriate for the 11-year-old. This request seemed entirely too much for them, or perhaps beneath them, so I dialed up “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” as part of my occasional and ongoing (and almost certainly misguided) effort to expose my children to things I value. Needless to say, the girls disappeared into their room within 30 minutes, leaving the boy and me to watch a movie that I’d seen seven times before and that he didn’t really understand.

In their room I could hear the girls giggling in the way that smartphones make teenage girls giggle. Before we’d left, I’d told my daughter that I wanted them to limit their time on scenes. (My wife had suggested a no-phones trip, which I was too weak to enforce.) Retreating to their room for more phone time was a clear violation of my edict. She was defying me. She was ignoring me. If I’m being honest, she was hurting my feelings.

I summoned her from behind the varnished pinewood door.

“Yes?” she said, as if questioning my temerity.

“I don’t want you guys on your phones in there.”

“We’re not. They’re just plugged in.”

“Okay, well, I just have to ask. What’s up?”

“With what?”

“With how you’ve been acting?”

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“Forget it. Forget I said anything.”

“Fine,” she huffed, spun on her heels, and closed the door loudly enough to be make a statement, but softly enough to avoid accusations of slamming.

“Come out here, please.”

She emerged again, annoyed but careful not to cross any lines.

“Yes?”

“What’s going on? Why are you acting this way?”

“What way?”

“Do you really not know what I’m talking about?”

“I swear, I don’t know.”

“Okay. Sorry I said anything.”

WIth that, I retreated to my room upstairs and did not sleep, barely appreciating the splendor of being alone in a king size bed, wondering how she could pretend not to know what she’d done. How could she fail to acknowledge her pattern of dismissiveness? Fail to express gratitude for the luxury vacation home I’d arranged, the food I’d cooked, the dishes I’d done, the heat I’d saved, the clothes I’d dried? Fail to apologize for hurting my feelings?

When I awoke this morning, I was afraid to go downstairs. I heard all three kids chatting amiably. I tried to make out the topic of their muffled conversation. I read a few pages of Delillo and ginned up the courage to leave my turret. As I descended into the living room, my daughter looked up and smiled.

“Hi, Dad.”

As if nothing had happened.

I tiptoed into the kitchen, made coffee, and warmed chocolate croissants in the oven. I served breakfast. The boy thanked me. The girls did not. I noted the angelic snowflakes wafting in the morning air.

"Do you see?" I asked, directing their attention away from a celebrity's Instagram feed.

“We saw,” my daughter said without inflection.

“Do you want to get a picture or something?”

“It's okay.”

“Do you know you’re acting like an ingrate with a shitty attitude and a sociopathic deadness inside?”

Only I didn’t say that. Because I had to admit that she wasn’t acting that way at all. She was acting like every teenager I’ve ever known. In fact, she may have been abiding me a bit more than most 14-year-olds abide their fathers, especially when in the presence of their friends. But that was how I felt.

It was at that moment that I absconded upstairs to figure out why. Five hours and 80+ pages of White Noise later, I had the following realization.

She has always been like this. Not a teenager. Not attitudinal. Not ungrateful. Those things are temporal. Though she is my oldest, I’m aware that in a few years, she will be distinctly not a teenager, completely lovable, and totally appreciative of what she has. And I will still be afraid of her. She will still possess the power to send me scurrying to a lofted bedroom in a mountain retreat simply by being herself.

My wife is right. (As usual.) Our daughter was born this way. She has always cut through me, piercing my inflated ego, and exposing the virgin skin of my insecurities. She burns me. Every time. Her words. Her expression. Her silence. Her stillness. In each of these and a thousand other actions, she reveals a power great enough to alter the world around her, the way a mountain can make its own weather. And she has no idea yet.

This is what I learned in Tahoe. It’s taken me 14 years to come to terms with the fact that I’m afraid of my daughter. My fear exceeded only by my love for her, which is infinite. She is stronger than I am. Not because I am weak, but because she is preternaturally powerful. She came into the world that way. As an infant, she fought with the world, writhing like some mythological creature intent on bending the universe to her will. As she aged, she learned to restrain herself, to hold back, to avoid conflict and detection by those who wouldn’t understand her, who might seek to change her. Now, finally, she is growing up. Her contents under pressure are beginning to feel the heat of impending adulthood. Soon it will be time to put on protective eyewear.  

Or maybe not. The world is still not a friendly place for powerful young women. My daughter is acutely aware that she is expected to please. Please men, please bosses, please her parents, grandparents, friends, and teachers. She is not immune to the forces of the culture in which she’s been raised. But she is surely at odds with those forces. Something will have to give. I hope it won’t be her. She is at her most powerful when she isn’t trying to please anyone. I see that now, finally and for the first time. I truly hope she will see it, too.



Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Not Alone


I get home around 6:00 after a long day at work. Six hours of teaching middle school followed by two hours of meetings. I don’t drink during the week anymore, but I admit to thinking that a few fingers of something brown and 80 proof would really hit the spot. I hear my son and his friend playing in the converted garage. Nerf guns are firing. I set my things down and call, “Man on the range!” by way letting them know that an adult is now in the house. I noisily putter for 15 minutes, putting my keys in the basket by the door, taking off my gimmicky teacher tie that comes out only during the first week of school, and extricating myself from my slacks like a marine mammal being freed after years of entrapment in an abandoned fishing net.  I have a text exchange with the visiting boy’s mother. She wants him home. I send him and my boy out for a dual-purpose dog-walk and friend-return. They close to the door behind them and for the first time all day, I am alone.

I put on an old CD of live, in-studio recordings from KCRW. I recline on the leather Restoration Hardware couch that my wife purchased used from a Tiburon mom who posted it on the Southern Marin Mothers’ Club website. It cost $6000 when it was new. It’s two-times too big for our little living room. It is an obscene monument to conspicuous ostentation. There is nothing about this piece of furniture that suggests that people like us should own it. And I fucking love it. It is the most comfortable piece of furniture I’ve ever owned. Were it not for my not-irregular consumption of entire pints of Haagen Dazs chocolate and peanut butter ice cream while rewatching The Wire for the fourth time, this couch could easily be my guiltiest pleasure. Ten minutes pass and the acoustic, first-ever performance of Radiohead’s Subterranean Homesick Alien hits my 32 year-old bookshelf speakers. I close my eyes and my body takes on the consistency of soft cheese at 4th of July picnic.

Presently I hear the clomp of my almost-three-year-old efforting up the front steps. The door opens. She and her mother are talking about butterflies and hummingbirds and mangos. I quickly rise from the couch before my wife crosses the threshold lest she mistake my relaxation for indolence.

“Are the boys here?”
“I sent them on a dog walk.”
“Oh, great. I picked up some soup.”
“Perfect. I wasn’t all that hungry.”
“Where’s (oldest daughter)?”
“She’s not here.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. I haven't seen her.”
“What do you mean you haven’t seen her?”
I wonder, how many possible interpretations are there of that statement?
“Well, I got home about 30 minutes ago and she has not been here during that time.”
“Is she in her room?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Did you look?”
“No.”

I walk down the hall to find the door to my daughter’s room closed. I knock. She answers. 

I have not been alone. She was here the whole time. The sense of relief, of the day’s residue washing away, of the indulgence that comes with solitude, now feels slightly obscene. Dear God, what if she’d seen me? Walked right in on me while I wasn’t thinking about her or her sister or her brother or her mom or my job or my parents or anyone or anything other than me. Would she have ever been able to look at me the same way after after seeing such selfishness? I'd been feeling good when I wasn't supposed to be, and I didn’t even realize it. I find myself trying to retroactively unfeel the feelings because I wasn't entitled to them. It doesn't work. I can't live in two worlds at once. 

But wait. 

She was here the whole time. She heard me come in and talk to the boys. My keys jangled loudly when I dropped them. The closet door squeaks when it opens. And I’m sure I groaned when I escaped the prison of my waistband. There was music playing, too. Even the leather couch makes leather couch noises when I sit on it. She had to know I was home. Had been home for 30 minutes. And she never came out to say hello. Never emerged for the greeting of love and affection that she is certain to get from me. Whatever it is that for 13 years has caused her to come to the door to make sure that I see her and she sees me, didn’t happen. She didn’t need to see me. She didn’t need me to see her. She didn’t need me. The daughter I used to have isn't the daughter I have anymore. 

And I am dizzy.

My daughter is not my daughter. My world is not my world.

Down the hall, Thom York is still singing.

I wish that they'd swoop down in a country lane
Late at night when I'm driving
Take me on board their beautiful ship
Show me the world as I'd love to see it
I'd tell all my friends but they'd never believe me
They'd think that I'd finally lost it completely
I'd show them the stars and the meaning of life
They'd shut me away
But I'd be alright
Alright
I'm alright

I hope so.