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I recently went to Los Angeles on a songwriting trip and halfway through, Michelle and Lev joined me. This meant Michelle had to fly from New York to LA with Lev by herself. She was worried he would be difficult on the flight and so researched all the best ways to fly with a 15-month-old.
Like any sane responsible parent, Michelle prepared. She bought special headphones for babies, a half dozen iPad apps, and packed a bunch of toys and children’s books, as well as the strange things Lev likes to play with — our TV remote and a roll of masking tape. She also brought a blanket to change him on, diapers, butt wipes, butt cream and a small cooler with snacks, 5 bottles of organic whole milk, and all his favorite foods. There was not a single eventuality she failed to prepare for. Napoleon invaded Russia with less planning. Still, it was a hard flight now that Lev has learned to run, as he spent most of the time wriggling out of her lap and racing up and down the aisles, making friends with the other passengers.
Since we were booked on separate flights for our return to New York, I said it would only be fair if I volunteered to fly home alone with Lev, so Michelle could enjoy some grown up time on her flight. To my surprise, before I could finish floating the idea she agreed and wished me luck.
I decided to make the flight home with Lev a small experiment in parenting. I said no to packing the toys and the books and the remote and the masking tape. I just took one bottle of milk and when Michelle objected I said, don’t worry — I’ll just get milk from the stewardess on the plane. She told me Lev would go insane screaming and she advised me to bring an army of Elmo dolls and other ways to keep him distracted, but I said, Relax, we’ll have fun with our imaginations, we don’t need “toys” or “things” and I gently chided her for buying into the Buy Buy Baby consumerist parenting trap. I mean, how many apps can a 15-month-old need?
I had reduced my pre-flight carry on preparations to a few diapers and a bottle of milk. She looked at me like I was going to fight a lion armed with a fly swatter, shrugged her shoulders and went off to catch her flight.
I began playing with the little blue vomit bag, pretending it was a crown.
Getting through security was a little stressful: there was an added layer of tension to the usual nervous choreography of taking off shoes, removing the laptop from the backpack, yanking Lev out of his stroller, folding the stroller with one hand while stopping him from running off and not dropping his one bottle of milk while subjecting it to whatever TSA bomb sniffing protocol they apply to baby milk, all while hoping Lev wouldn’t freak out as the line behind us grew longer and more impatient.
But once aboard the plane, fortune smiled on me. The entire flight was packed but somehow the passenger in the seat next to me didn’t make it on time, so Lev had his own seat and he promptly fell asleep for the next 2 hours.
Like George W. Bush unveiling his “Mission Accomplished” banner aboard an aircraft carrier right before Iraq descended into a decade-long orgy of terror and civil war, I began to pat myself on the back. So self-congratulatory was my mood that I ordered a beer and a tiny tequila, pushed my seat into recline position and settled in to watch a movie.
Just as I was pouring the tequila over a glass of ice, Lev awoke with a bloodcurdling shriek and I spilled the entire drink onto my thigh. (On the upside, he starting crying so ferociously the stewardess ran away didn’t charge me for my drinks.) I tried to comfort Lev with milk but it turns out United Airlines does not have any milk on board its planes. I let that settle in for a moment while panic descended on me slowly like a feverish veil.
I briefly considered filling his bottle with artificial half and half creamers, but since a bottle of that would certainly kill a baby, I turned to plan B: we would use our imaginations and have fun with whatever we could find, like Tom Hanks in Castaway. I began playing with the little blue vomit bag, pretending it was a crown. This delighted the boy and he also began wearing the air sickness bag as a hat. And for a while I thought damn, I’m pretty good at solving problems on the fly. Then Lev “went to the bathroom” by which I mean he stayed right where he was on my lap and began to emit a foul odor which neither I nor my fellow passengers could ignore. That’s when things turned a little sour.
I briefly considered filling his bottle with artificial half and half creamers, but since a bottle of that would certainly kill a baby.
Inside the tiny 18-square-inch bathroom he freaked out as though nobody had ever wiped his ass inside a phone booth at 30,000 feet. I began to worry that a U.S. Marshall was going to burst in and taser me because Lev was screaming and trembling and covered in tears and spittle and poo.
Once back in our seat and somewhat cleaned up, I was finally able to put my less prepared parenting style to the test. My theory is that fatherhood is like life: you can make it as fraught and expensive as you want. Or you can relax and improvise. Lev and I began creating toys from the materials at hand. We played with the seatbelt buckle for about a half hour and Lev really enjoyed snapping it open and closed on my fingers. We played with the empty tequila bottle and empty beer can until Lev turned the can upside down on my lap and we discovered it wasn’t really empty.
So it looked like I was the one who peed in my pants, and we both laughed at the irony. Then we leafed through the inflight magazine and Lev was tearing every page to shreds, which amused me until we got to some pages that were sticky and had some weird brown food-like substance stuck to them and I quickly moved on the plan C. I filled his bottle with water and to my surprise, he fell asleep in my lap, sipping away quietly, apparently unaware of the difference between milk from a cow’s udder and tap water from a faucet.
Once again I felt that special combination of warm fatherly love and smug pride and at having gotten by in life with the minimum effort.
The stewardess came by and gave me a little snack packer and the crinkling noise of the wrapper woke Lev. He was curious about what I was eating and since I had long ago panicked and eaten all the food I had brought for him, I figured why not? Worst case scenario is we discover he is allergic to something. Lev ate some of the dried snacks but the wasabi peas were too spicy. He looked at me with an expression of pained betrayal and began to weep and yank at his lips frantically as if to remove the sting of the wasabi manually.
Fortunately a kindly passenger a few rows ahead of me saw our distress and passed me large container of fruit she had bought at Whole Foods, which she said her kids refused to eat.
So self-congratulatory was my mood that I ordered a beer and a tiny tequila, pushed my seat into recline position and settled in to watch a movie.
My kid on the other hand is a fruit-aholic. So we spent the remainder of the flight smiling and feeding each other blueberries and strawberries.
When we landed in New York, I got some milk at the airport and filled his bottle. Michelle met me at baggage claim looking well-rested. Lev pretended everything was cool.
“Well?” She asked, with an air of anticipatory schadenfreude. “How did it go?”
“Shut up,” I explained, as we wobbled through the airport exit, a family made whole again. Life is easy with 2 adults against one little beast strapped into his stroller. I had survived and proved my point. You don’t need apps and a bunch of crap to be happy. Looking back on it, maybe the wasabi peas weren’t such a good idea.
The moral of the story is, relax and someone will probably give you fruit. And flying across the country alone with my toddler with zero preparation?
It was the easiest thing in the world I’ll never do again.
Dimitri Ehrlich is a multi-platinum selling songwriter and the author of 2 books. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, and Interview Magazine, where he served as music editor for many years.