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One of the only times I remember my dad “playing” with me was on a Christmas morning. I was probably 7 or 8. I’d just been given some sort of Hot Wheels racetrack. One that had cars with headlights, I think. Something really cool. As I was upstairs in my bedroom putting the pieces together, excited nearly to the point of puking, he appeared. Dressed in his everyday ensemble – navy blue button-down work shirt with the sleeves rolled up, navy blue work pants, black socks with babbuccia – my old man got down on one knee and began doing and saying the things that a genuinely interested person might have done and said: offering to help, asking questions, tousling my hair. I can remember the details vividly because they reside in one of our family photo albums. The pics, undoubtedly taken by my mother, reveal a boy looking as confused as his adult self remembers feeling. I’d had Hot Wheels before, I’d had Hot Wheels racetracks before, I’d even been in the same geographic vicinity of my father in the very recent past – why the sudden interest in “playing” with me now, Daddy?
A father myself now, I think I get what he was doing. Even before I became a parent, “Cat’s in the Cradle” terrified me. How horrible, to wake up one day an old man who hadn’t realized that all of those seemingly interminable minutes with his kid were actually opportunities for real experiences, real joy, real pain. Had the father in Harry Chapin’s song seen things differently, perhaps more clearly, maybe his now-grown baby boy would have replied, “Sure, Dad!” when asked, “Can you sit for a while?” No need to call in the paparazzi. Just a father and his son hanging out together, possibly building a racetrack. Move along.
“Cat’s in the Cradle” is now like my bizarro querencia. I come back to it especially when I’m with my kid, those scant few hours on the weekends or after work. Even if we play blocks or toys for an hour, I still feel like I’m not doing enough. I also know that Apollo is not going to be his adorable, silly, high-wattage 5-year-old self forever, not even for a couple more years. Soon he’s going to be a miniature person, with ideas and opinions not too far off from a boring, annoying adult’s. My wife and I should be doing more to enjoy his cuteness now. My best friend and the father of 2 teens tells me that if cellphones had existed back when his kids were toddlers, he would have filmed every second of their lives.
He’s exaggerating but only to underline an important point: Being present, focusing on what you’re doing when you’re doing it instead of sleepwalking through it, is not a bad way to live. Not only with your family but with everyone: friends, coworkers, Republican politicians. And “focusing,” with all due respect to my pal’s hyperbole, does not mean “viewing the world only through a camera lens.” (I’m still struggling with that one. I take lots of pictures of Apollo though almost always to share them with only my wife, her parents, and my mom, who lives 1,250 miles away and is incapable of traveling on her own. Still, I need to put down the phone for a little bit.)
“‘Cat’s in the Cradle’ is now like my bizarro querencia.”
What I think I’ve figured out is that quality trumps quantity.
I don’t blame myself for my distracted parenting, a state of mind in which minutes crawl by as years fly. That’s when you and your kid are playing in his room and you’re lying on the carpet mindlessly waving around Darth Vader with one hand while intently texting your friends about your dumb team’s stupid offensive play-calling with the other. I definitely don’t blame Harry Chapin. Truthfully, I don’t know if there’s anyone actually to blame. When I was a kid, I loved playing by myself. Drawing, reading, listening to music (Rush, Rick James, and Gary Numan were really popular in my bedroom), coloring, playing video games, playing naked superheroes – I did it all and mostly by myself, “mostly” because I have 2 older brothers and an older sister, and they may or may not have been near me when I was kickin’ it solo. My son today, I can’t even go to the library (aka the toilet) without him either knocking on the door repeatedly or just barging in to tell me that Mommy’s making lunch! (“I know, Apollo.”), the blocks aren’t sticking together! (“Be there in a sec, buddy.”), or Sofia the First just turned into a mermaid! (“I’m very happy for her, dude.”).
To be clear: I am not complaining. Much. After my wife and I adopted him from an African orphanage about 4 years ago, we did everything we could to create a tight bond among the 3 of us. Making our sick little boy feel safe – and loved and confident and healthy – was our Number One goal, for him to be able to thrive and to move closer to some sense of normalcy. We didn’t know that by creating that bond, we would also be giving me a second shadow. Again, not complaining. (Too much.) I love that sweet little fella. I love him with every breath I take. I just would like to go to the bathroom in my own house by myself sometime.
When I was younger, I used to say that every day should be Thanksgiving, Christmas, and our birthdays rolled up in one. Every day, I’d preach, we should be celebrating the fleeting blessing that is life not just with our family, friends, and neighbors but with everyone. Even Republican politicians. Now I understand why we can’t. It’s called “life.” And it’s definitely not as easy as Giselle and Tom Brady make it look. Life is hard. And gritty. And often disappointing. And it’s often disappointing because we always seem to have too much or, worse, too little time.
“’There is never enough time to do or say all the things that we would wish’,” asserts the large, chubby, white-bearded Ghost of Christmas Present in the 1970 classic film musical Scrooge. “‘The thing is to try to do as much as you can in the time that you have. Remember, Scrooge. Time is short. And, suddenly, you’re not there anymore.’”
“I don’t blame myself for my distracted parenting, a state of mind in which minutes crawl by as years fly.”
What’s a normal life for us workaday moms and dads before we’re “not there” anymore? Breakfast, work, dinner, and bed. Ad infinitum. For kids, it’s the same except “work” is “school,” those poor tiny souls.
“The founding fathers in their wisdom decided that children were an unnatural strain on parents,” says world-weary high school teacher George Caldwell in Updike’s The Centaur. “So they provided jails called schools, equipped with torture called education.”
Another reason we can’t party like it’s 1999 every day is that people are a beatdown. It’s called “alone time.” And we all desperately need it. Unless you’re my son. Who just feels compelled to hang off me every second of every day. (Not complaining. Really.) Teaching Apollo how to be alone, even how to be bored, has been, so far, hit-or-miss. What works: spending quality time with him before encouraging him to play on his own, making a big production out of my spending Q.T. with Mommy, locking myself in the library. What doesn’t: video games.
Though he can figure out a lot by himself, he can’t read yet, which leads to myriad technical questions that neither my wife nor I want to or can readily answer. What we crave is for him be OK in his own company, for him to explore his creativity, yes, but also for him to know that comfort can come from within, not only from Mom and Dad. Self-regulation is vital for kids to grow into stable young men and women, who don’t need booze, drugs, poker chips, or a bed full of lovers to get back to normal.
The downside may be that alone-ly kids become alone-ly adults. I’ll whip up fake illnesses or pretend I’m having car problems just to be able to skip work early, go home, and be by myself for only a few minutes. I always end up doing more work, so no one’s really losing, but the quiet! The freedom! The solitude! Though I didn’t particularly care for American Beauty (too obvious, too heavy-handed), I always think about the part when Kevin Spacey’s character responds to losing his cushy job by reverting to his teenage self: lifting weights in the garage, working in fast food, jamming to classic rock. “I feel like I’ve been in a coma for the past 20 years,” he says, “and I’m just now waking up.” A perfectly spent piece of alone-ly time for me now includes drinking a glass or 2 of wine, listening to my Rush playlist, and drawing. I’m currently working on a portrait of me singing “Won’t Get Fooled Again” as Roger-Daltrey/Salvador-Dali/Darth-Vader, with backing vocals by Gary-Carter/Elvis/an-Alien-xenomorph and Gene-Simmons/Mario-Lemieux/Tom-Barrasso/Bob-McKenzie. An ounce of guilt, I do not feel.
My parents spent very little one-on-one time with me as a child, and it hasn’t hurt me, at least as much as it might be hurting my mom – my old man died 23 years ago when he was only 61. Clarification: That lack of time together hasn’t hurt me in any obvious, terrible ways. I may be an unrelenting nostalgist, but I’m not an axe-murderer or anything.
All that I can do now to honor my dear old dad is make the best of the time I have with my other shadow. (Again, not complaining. Just so we’re clear.)
Anthony Mariani, editor of and art critic for the Fort Worth Weekly, a regular contributor to the Fatherly Forum, and a former freelancer for The Village Voice, Oxford American, and Paste magazine, recently finished writing a memoir that is obviously “too real, man!” (his words) for any U.S. publisher, reputable or otherwise. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org