Saturday, June 20, 2009

Jeffry P. Lindsay
"Don’t Let The Teamsters Onto The Off-White Carpet"

I have this really great famous saying in my head that I want to start with today. The problem is that everything in my head this morning is under a very thick layer of sludge, because I was awake all night. But the famous saying goes something like this: "Anybody who wants to be president should automatically be disqualified from holding the office." Another problem is that I forgot who said this. I think it was either Mark Twain or Groucho Marx, and because my head is filled with sludge right now I am having a hard time telling them apart. I remember they both had big bushy mustaches and smoked cigars, and they both said very funny things. I am pretty sure that Mark Twain never tried to kiss Margaret Dumont, but that’s the only difference I can think of right now and I might be wrong.

But this column is not about presidential politics. Although after this last election I think the same saying should apply: Anyone who actually wants to write about that stuff should be automatically forced to kiss Margaret Dumont, or whatever it was. I forget; like I said, my head is filled with sludge right now. The real point is that this great saying by Mark Twain or Groucho Marx – or maybe it was Frank Zappa, he had a mustache – this wonderful wise saying really and truly ought to apply to kids, too. Anybody who wants them obviously either doesn’t know what they’re in for or if they do and they want ‘em anyway, they’re mentally incompetent to raise anything more complicated than maybe a few one-celled bacteria in the grout around the bath tub.

No, when you think about having kids you must always remember that great Latin motto; "In loco parentis." Which means, you have to be crazy to be a parent. And it’s in Latin, which really ought to count for something, because the Latins were very smart people. After all, they could speak Latin.

Just one small example of loco parentis is seen in our house. The people we bought it from had kids, and yet they installed off-white wall-to-wall carpet all over the house. Is this the act of a sane and rational parent? I don’t think so. There is no way kids and white carpet can live together in harmony. And to really get down to the point, the most recent example of this obvious truth came last night at around 11:30 when Pookie, my four year-old, came to the door of our bedroom, announced that she didn’t feel very well, and then almost immediately did something that can only be described as volcanic.

My first thought was that standing behind her there had to be a group of very large Teamsters coming in from a long night of eating donuts with meat sauce, because what Pookie spewed onto the carpet was about eight times bigger than she is.

This was not the first time something like this has happened. Of course, if you have kids you don’t need to be told this, since I already mentioned that we have off-white carpet and disaster is almost automatic with off-white carpet. It is now a good deal more off than white, mostly from every day stuff like feet dipped in chocolate, and spilled orange soda, and spaghetti fights and the incontinent dog. But strangely enough, no more than three feet from where Pookie threw up, her sister Bear threw up a few years ago, and now we have two huge matching stains. Even more amazing is that these two huge stains are almost the same shape and color. And although I think I know most of what my kids eat, nothing I have ever fed them is that exact color of radioactive orange. I can only assume that we have a toxic waste dump somewhere on the property and they both drop by there for snacks from time to time.

But this isn’t the crazy part, of course. Kids getting sick is normal, and if you have off-white carpet, it is normal for them to stand on it when they throw up. No, the crazy part is what I did next. Now, a sane and normal person, a rational person without kids, would simply wake up his wife so the mess would get cleaned up before it ate through the floor and entered the aquifer.
Instead, I immediately assumed that Pookie had swallowed some botulism toxin, and I rushed her into the bathroom to give her all the home remedies I could think of – Tums, kid’s aspirin, ginger ale and a banana – until finally my wife heard Pookie shouting to leave her alone, she didn’t want anything, and so my wife came in and led me away by the hand.

I spent the rest of the night sneaking into Pookie’s bedroom to make sure she was still alive. Every six or seven minutes I would tip-toe in and check her pulse, respiration and temperature, making extra sure that her head hadn’t exploded, and that she was still free of leprosy.
I finally fell asleep around 6, and at 6:30 I heard a huge racket and went staggering out into the hall, the sludge slowly trickling up into my brain. And I stood between the two giant orange stains, Bear’s on the left and Pookie’s on the right, and looked into the living room, where Pookie was jumping up and down on the couch, completely recovered. "Dad," she said happily. "I might still be sick."

"Aim for the blank spot," I said. I pointed to the place on the very-far- off-white carpet. It really did look blank. And just to show you how loco I am as a parentis, I started to think that maybe we should have one more kid. Because with just one more big orange stain, the carpet would start to look like it had an intentional pattern on it. And then we would have a much more valuable house, with, as Mark Twain once said, "all the modern inconveniences. "

Or was it Margaret Dumont?


Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Jeffry P. Lindsay
"Lassie Sleeps With The Fishes, But I Have Insomnia"

If I have learned anything at all in my life, I have learned one thing. Well, actually two things, since I have also learned that a bulldozer always has the right of way, but that has nothing to do with what we're talking about today. No, what I have learned is this. None of us are immune from tragedy. No matter how smart or rich or important we are, no matter how often we go the gym or give money to the church, tragedy can strike any of us at any time. Even if we are a small and innocent goldfish named Lassie.

And more to the point, when we actually are a small goldfish named Lassie and tragedy strikes us, it is also a tragedy for others -- especially a small, curly-haired, hyperactive girl named Pookie who loves Lassie so much it's almost scary. And naturally enough, that means a crisis for Pookie's Dad -- me.

According to the Top Secret Handbook For Fathers, a very valuable book that has guided me through every family emergency so far, there are two basic responses to the Dead Pet Syndrome, or DPS as we call it. The first is simple: sit the kid down and say, "Sorry, kid, your pet is dead," and then deal with consequences -- which the Handbook warns may include contusions, abrasions, loss of income and ruptured eardrums. This method is brutal, and may seem hard on the kid, but it is honest, direct, and helps teach your child about the harsh and sometimes fatal nature of reality.

The second method for dealing with DPS is a little easier on you, at least at first. It is recommended for younger children, and also for children who hit really hard when they are upset. In this method, you hide the dead pet from the child and quickly replace it with a live one that looks as much as possible like the dead pet, except it should have more movement. The part about looking like the old one is very important, since replacing a goldfish with a hamster will probably not fool anyone, even a four year-old, unless you are a really fast talker.

Both of those methods have much to recommend them. And I would love to tell you which one I think is best. But if you read this column regularly you may have noticed that I try not to give advice too often. That is partly because I don't like to sound preachy, or pretend that I know all the answers. It is also partly because if I have learned anything from the experience of having two kids it is that I don't really know anything, and I am generally so tired and flustered from dealing with them that I am in no position to give anybody advice on anything.

However, I feel very confident about giving out one very clear piece of advice, and it is this: If you live in Florida and it is a hot day, do not put your daughter's dead goldfish into a plastic bag on the front seat of the car and then get stuck in traffic on the way to the pet store to replace the fish with one just like it before your daughter comes home and discovers that her beloved pet is bloated and floating belly up. Especially if it turns out that the plastic bag has holes in it because somebody has been experimenting with finding out what scissors can do. I really feel very good about this advice, and I know I know I am right.

And if this was an advice column, I would now tell you how to get the smell of dead sun-baked goldfish out of automobile upholstery. But this is not an advice column, and anyway I haven't figured that part out yet. So I will stick to saying, don't try this. And for the time being, don't accept a ride in my car. Believe me on this one, this is good advice.

Unfortunately, there are parts of this otherwise great advice I am not so confident about. First, the replacement method is actually a Great Big Fib, the kind we warn our kids not to do because it can lead to jail or a life of selling insurance. And because I am a New Age All-Things-Are-One-So-Eat-Your-Broccoli kind of Dad, I have never been comfortable with lying to my kids, even for their own good. When T.L. Bear's turtle ran away a few years back, I told her what had happened and we talked about whether she wanted a new one, or something else. She said she wanted a pony instead, which I pointed out was a pretty big trade-up from a turtle. She told me that her grief and mental suffering ought to be worth something, and a pony would be a big step on the road to seeing her smile again. I told her that was fine if she would clean up after the pony, and before she agreed to that she needed to imagine cleaning up after her dog if he was 100 times bigger and got into Grandma's chocolate box every day. Her eyes got very big, and we compromised on a hamster. I fully realize that in another five years I won't get away with that, and I hope Harvard Law School can smooth her out a little before then.

But anyway, that was Bear and her turtle, and this was Pookie and a fish. And this time I decided to go the other way, for three good reasons. First, all kids are different and Pookie, at 4, seemed more likely to be devastated by a dead fish than her sister was at 8 when the turtle ran away. My second reason was that I am now smart enough to know that I don't know anything. And finally, and most important, my wife decided that this was what I wanted to do, so I did it.
So there I was in traffic with a fish decomposing on the front seat of my car. And I have to say that it is moments like these that give Fatherhood the surreal glow I have come to enjoy most about the job.

I finally did get all the way to the pet store, and here's another tip you might not have known: if you want really fast service in a store, hold up a leaking bag that contains a warm, decomposing fish. I guarantee that the clerks will find time for you right away, even if they are on the phone or doing their nails.

I got New Lassie home safely, since Pookie hadn't been through the pet store's plastic bags with her scissors. And a week later, New Lassie is doing fine, and if Pookie has noticed any difference she hasn't said. So the fish is fine, Pookie is happy, and that should be a happy ending.
Except that I still feel guilty about the whole thing.

Which puts me in the very strange position of feeling bad because my daughter's pet is alive.


Saturday, June 6, 2009

Jeffry P. Lindsay
"If You Eat Enough Broccoli, The Cops Leave You Alone"

Someone in my household got a speeding ticket this week. I promised my wife I would not say who this person was, so I will only say that it wasn’t me and the kids don’t drive. And in spite of the fact that there are many good reasons to keep this kind of thing private, I thought I should write about it today because there are also several good reasons to discuss a speeding ticket in print. First of all, most kids have very complicated responses to their various encounters with members of the law enforcement community, and if I can help these kids arrive at a clear understanding of the issues by devoting a column to the subject I feel this is time and ink well spent. And second, by writing about this speeding ticket, it is now tax deductible.

Furthermore, we can now say we weren’t actually speeding – we were doing research. And if I can make enough people believe this, I can qualify for a high-paying job in Washington, DC.

But the important part of this ticket that I did not get – I mean, research that we shrewdly performed for the good of the public and nice tax write-off – the important part, I say, is the effect it had on our kids.

All children have very complicated feelings about policemen. In the first place, they are told that if they are ever lost or in trouble they must immediately find someone in a police uniform and tell him or her that they are lost. And the police person will help them, and even keep away bad guys. In the second place, in many households the police have become bogey men who will throw you in a dark hole full of spiders and TV with no cable if you do not eat your broccoli. And since most children can’t shake the feeling that all cops somehow know what they really did with their vegetables, their feelings towards those in blue uniforms are in a kind of delicate balance between guilt and awe.

These perfectly natural feelings are further complicated at our house, since we have some very good friends who are cops, which means that our kids have seen some of these cops late at night after some very successful dinner parties, and nothing we can say now will convince our children that the bad guys are really in any danger.

But we have tried to say all the right things to our kids about law enforcement personnel, with only one or two minor slips along the way like the thing with broccoli. And in general we thought our kids were responding pretty well. They almost always cheer for the cops in movies, and they have always been enthusiastic at the sight of some naughty speeder pulled off on the side of the road and getting a ticket.

Until today.

Now, I will stand by my promise not to tell you who was driving, but I was in the passenger seat in preparation for being dropped off at the gym.

And when I heard the siren behind me, my first thought was that it was one of my kids. So I turned around to yell at them to stop making those awful sounds, saw the cop behind us, and my second thought was, "Uh-oh."

One of us, whoever was driving, said a bad word and pulled onto the side of the road. I looked at the girls in the back seat. I was not worried about T.L. Bear, of course. At eleven years old, she is too sophisticated and experienced to be frightened by a speeding ticket. And sure enough, she sat there quietly, eyes as big as dinner plates, nonchalantly gasping for breath and chewing her way through one of the straps of her book bag.

Pookie, only five years old, was already standing on the seat, ready for combat, her teddy bear held up like a baseball bat.

The officer approached our car. A second cop stood behind him, a badge that read, "Training Officer," pinned to his shirt. So the man writing us a ticket was in training, which probably meant he would be a little more nervous than somebody who had been doing this for a while. It suddenly seemed like a good idea to keep my kids from acting like – well, acting like themselves, to be honest.

"Stay quiet, kids," I said.

"License and registration, please," the cop said.

"Are you going to put us in jail?" Pookie asked.

The cop smiled. "No, honey," he said. "Not if you’re good."

This was apparently the wrong thing to say, because Pookie immediately yelled, "My daddy has a GUN!"

"No I don’t," I protested.

"You SAID you did!"

"Yes, but I meant at home –"

"Shut up, he’ll kill us!" screamed Bear suddenly. And she tried to crawl out the window, screaming, "Don’t shoot!"

I got her back in her seat, which is harder than it sounds since I was also trying to hold Pookie back at the same time, and she was swinging wildly with her teddy bear. As she clocked me on the nose with the stuffed animal, I looked up to see the cop standing at the window, his mouth hanging open. But at least he wasn’t reaching for his gun. "Uh – license and registration?" he said. And both girls suddenly sat down and began to cry.

While I thought this was pretty good practice for when they were old enough to drive, it was too much for the officer in training. His lower lip began to quiver, and he backed away from our car trying to hide a sob.

So the training officer had to write our ticket, and one of us, whoever was driving, is driving much slower now.

Which is fine with the kids. They have learned a great deal from their run-in with the law, and they don’t want to repeat the experience.

They’re getting very tired of eating all that broccoli.


Saturday, March 28, 2009

Sorry it's been so long -- I've been a wee bit distracted. Here's another from a few years back.

Jeffry P. Lindsay
"The Real Reason Tarzan Never Drove A Mini-Van"

When I was young I was addicted to the Tarzan books, and the older I get the more I realize that reading those books has warped me beyond repair. I don’t mean that I walk around the house wearing only a loincloth with a big sheath knife on my hip. That would be pretty dumb, and that’s why my wife put a stop to it right after we got married.

And I have pretty much given up climbing trees, too, since the last time I tried it I found out in unmistakable terms that tree-climbing is for slightly younger people who weigh less than a refrigerator.

But one thing I have hung on to, and that is the Tarzan Code of Silence and Toughness. And one of the most important parts of this Code is that if human beings only spoke when they really needed to, most of us could go through life without saying more than three words. Hello, good-bye, and – if you have kids – No. And that’s it. So it was something of a shock to me when I realized that both of my kids are afflicted with ICS, or Incurable Chatterbox Syndrome.

When my first child, T.L. Bear, was born, she was no more than three seconds old when she opened her mouth and made a sound like an angry duck. And as far as I can tell, she hasn’t stopped talking since. Bear even talks in her sleep. When she was two or three I would wake in the middle of the night and hear her talking. Because I am a dedicated neurotic, I would leap out of bed and race into her room with a golf club in my teeth, since I was sure she was talking to a long-lost member of the Manson family who had broken in to her room with a set of Ginsu knives and a hedge trimmer. And as I stood at her bedside, dripping panic-sweat and slowly becoming aware of the pain in my teeth from the golf club, I would see that Bear was sound asleep – but nevertheless carrying on long conversations with The Kids, her invisible gang.
And because I believe in the value of silence, I would simply turn around without a word and go back to bed, where my wife would usually wake up and tell me to for God’s sake take the golf club out of my mouth.

The last year or so she has finally begun to slow down a little, but since this is because she is a pre-teen now I am afraid the cure is worse than the disease, since for the next few years I really want to hear what she is not saying.

Bear’s younger sister Pookie is pretty much cut from the same cloth as far as sheer non-stop chatter is concerned. But either she was born with a full knowledge of Edgar Allen Poe, or she has inherited a twisted nature from one of her parents, probably the big one with the mustache. Pookie’s monologues are punctuated by bizarre statements and questions that seem to come from nowhere and very quickly plunge into strange and terrifying corners of the human mind we are all better off not entering. "Dad. Dad. Dad. Hey, daddy," she said to me midway in a recent trip to Tampa. She had to call me more than once because she had been going on for an hour and I was trying to listen to the radio. "Dad?"

"Yes, Pookie?"

"How do elephants throw up?"

This is a very difficult question to answer at any time, but at 70 miles an hour while listening to a stock market report it is close to impossible. "Pookie," I said, as I steered back off the shoulder and onto the highway again. "Where on earth did that come from?"

She shrugged. "God put it into my brain and it came out my mouth," she said.

And then she went right back to her play-by-play coverage of the trip, including but not limited to counting the stripes in the road, saying hello to all the other cars, and asking me what would happen if the moon fell on my head.

And then just for good measure, Bear chimed in with a report on the ecology of the Arctic Circle, and how many words the Eskimos have for "snow," and why that means we should have more words for "hot," and I have long ago given up trying to hear the radio and I am just concentrating on keeping my head from exploding.

And it occurs to me that in all the many Tarzan books I read, it never mentions him driving a mini-van. And now we know why. Because even though he probably knew exactly how elephants throw up, he wouldn’t have to answer. He could just grab a grape vine and swing off into the jungle.

Which of course, I can’t do, because the van is finally paid for.


Saturday, February 28, 2009

Jeffry P. Lindsay

"Perfect Happiness Is A Beach, A Plane Ride And An Autoclave"

Fatherhood has two duties that are more important than all others. They are vital, sacred, the very essence of what being a dad is all about, and they are these: first, to protect your kids from things that are dangerous, extremely unpleasant, or smell really bad. And second, to provide perfect happiness whenever possible. This second one can be a little tricky, of course. In fact, since even kids don't know what would make them happy most of the time it's a lot like playing football when the rules keep changing until it's actually tennis. But you have to try.

And so last weekend was a very important time for me, because I did try, and I actually succeeded. I got both duties out of the way on the same day. This is the Fatherhood equivalent of hitting a Grand Slam in the seventh game of the World Series, and it really ought to mean that sometime this week I get to watch a playoff hockey game with a clean conscience and nobody yelling at me that "Xena Warrior Princess" is on and I really need to let go of the remote control and take out the garbage.

It started with a simple business trip to Bimini in the Bahamas. Yes, I mean it. Seriously. I know this sounds a lot like taking an exercise trip to the ice cream parlor, but it's true. We really did have to go there again, and the fact that we like to go there had nothing to do with it. And because all parents everywhere throughout all time run entirely on guilt, we arranged to take Pookie and T.L. Bear with us. Also, taking the kids along usually ends up being cheaper than buying the standard four tons of souvenirs because you feel so bad about leaving your children at home.

Pookie's first moment of perfect happiness came when we arrived at the seaplane terminal in Miami and she got to watch two helicopters land and take off. She was still glowing when we climbed into the small seaplane for the ride to Bimini. She watched wide-eyed out her window as the plane trundled down the ramp and into the ocean. "Dad," she said. "The airplane is going into the water."

"It's okay," I told her. "It's supposed to do that."

"Oh," she said, and then a moment later when the pilot shoved the throttle wide open and the plane began to roar down Government Cut and up into the air Pookie's face lit up into the most complete and amazing smile I have ever seen on her face.

Score that one for Dad.

T.L. Bear's happiness is a little more complicated, of course. She is so very close to being a teenager that the difference is largely a matter of legal fiction, and because of that she is not allowed to show any emotion at all except boredom and long-suffering patience with her Dad. On family outings her face usually takes on the look of a very bright sheepdog who is stuck herding a really dumb sheep. And so even if she is happy you can miss it if you don't know to look right at the corner of her mouth and notice a small twitch of smile she hasn't learned to hide completely yet.

And one glorious moment of our first day, I looked and there it was. A distinct twitch at the corner of Bear's mouth. In fact, a really large twitch. For Bear, it was the equivalent of yodeling "Ode To Joy" while sliding down the banister.

And in truth, as I watched her, it occurred to me that there could be no more perfect happiness in the world than to be ten years old and missing a day of school to sit up to your neck in the flourescent blue ocean of Bimini and eat a Moon Pie. Bear pushed the last crumb of chocolate-marshmallow into her mouth without getting salt water on it, looked up at me, and smiled.

For those of you keeping score, that's two for Dad.

It felt great. For a few wonderful moments, I actually forgot the fundamental principal of fatherhood, which is that whenever things look really good you are not seeing the whole picture.
Luckily, I came to my senses back in our hotel room when I woke up from my after-the-beach nap. While I slept the kids had found a pile of conch shells. There are many of these piles in Bimini. The natives eat conch and seem a little startled that anyone would want the shells. They seem to feel kind of the way you would if somebody picked through your garbage and wrapped up your chicken bones in their shirt to take home with them.

Of course, to be perfectly accurate, they wrapped the conch shells up in Dad's shirt. Three of Dad's shirts, in fact, because that was all I brought with me. And I discovered this when I tried to put on a shirt, because dead conch has a rather distinctive odor. As far as I know there is really no other smell like it. In fact, I am praying that there is no other smell like it in the world because one is way too many. Imagine low tide in a very old outhouse at a sulfur mine where they have thrown a half-ton of Georgia road kill and you get a pretty good picture of the smell I discovered when I got up from my nap and put on a shirt.

And then imagine my surprise as I re-discovered that same distinct smell on each of my other shirts.

Bimini is not a place where they look kindly on people going without a shirt. In fact, they will not let you in to any restaurant or shop on the island unless you are wearing a shirt, even if it is wet from trying to wash out the smell of dead conch which, by the way, does not wash out without a vat of industrial cleaner and an autoclave.

But of course, it's all part of the job. My shirts had been sacrificed to protect my kids from smelling like a skunk colony had died in their armpits.

So I wore the shirt. And even though I got some rather significant glances at dinner, at least I got a seat by myself on the plane ride home.


Saturday, February 21, 2009

Jeffry P. Lindsay
"Fatherhood Makes Gumps Of Us All"

Let me just say this: nobody has ever called me stupid. Even in grade school, kids looking for bad things to call me usually settled for "crazy" or "ugly." Even the really bad kids never thought they could get away with "stupid." Because they all knew that if they tried it I would laugh in their face and say, "Ha! I beat Frank Newton in the spelling bee! Who's stupid now?" or words to that effect which would make them look pretty silly.

So I never worried about being stupid. In fact, like most of us, it never entered my mind that I should worry about being stupid -- until I had kids.

As Shakespeare would have put it if he had been a Dad, "thus do kiddies make Forrest Gumps of us all." Because there is something about having kids that makes an idiot of every Dad who has ever lived. I firmly believe that just making the decision to have a child lowers your IQ by twenty points. And once you actually have them, every day that goes by seems to be just another reminder that you are not actually playing with a full deck.

I am not saying that kids all sit down at some kind of secret international conference during recess at day care and decide that making parents feel stupid is a good tactic. I don't think it's a decision at all. It's far worse than that. It's something buried in the genes and then unleashed at the age when they no longer need help to eat their oatmeal. All kids automatically assume that their dads are dumber than a box of rocks, and their everyday experience seems to indicate that they just might be right.

We all walk through life very carefully avoiding seeing ourselves as others see us. And then we have kids, and can't see ourselves any other way ever again. Who needs a mirror when you have kids to say, "daddy, is the guy who cuts your hair mad at you?" Or, "hey dad, look! I can fit all the couch cushions in your blue jeans!"

But beyond the ordinary humiliation, there is the fact that most of us think we are patiently teaching our kids to use their brains, and every single day they are trying to teach us that it's just the opposite.

Just yesterday, for example, I asked my three year-old, Pookie, what she wanted for her upcoming birthday. She stared at me as if she thought she was going to have to explain the new Russian economic policy to a cocker spaniel. Then, speaking slowly and very loud, and moving her lips in an exaggerated way so even I would understand, she said, "toys -- I don't -- HAVE!" She did not add, "DUH!" but I got the feeling that was only because she was afraid I wouldn't understand it.

I mean, of course. "Toys -- I don't -- HAVE." What else would somebody want for their birthday? Why didn't I think of that?

And then, just a little while later, I went down the hall and, because it was too dark to see anything, I tripped over a pile of Barbies, action figures, dirty clothes and a giant stuffed lizard. Now, every day for the last eighteen months I have told my kids 1) don't leave stuff lying in the hallway and 2) when you are IN the bathroom, close the door, and when you are OUT of the bathroom leave the door open so we have light in the hall. And I know this is a small and silly thing, and I have simply repeated it, with kindly good humor and growing emphasis. But now, because I had said it over 700 times, and because I had a Barbie head wedged painfully into my arch, I shouted it.

Both girls came into the hall as I ranted and they stared at me with a patient, pitying expression. And it hit me: I was yelling at my children about opening the bathroom door when they are not in the bathroom. If you can think up something dumber to yell about you are a genius. Because at that moment, standing in a half-dark hallway with a Barbie-mutilated foot and two kids staring at me, and hearing myself yelling about the bathroom door, it occurred to me that if there was anything dumber to yell about you would not be able to use real words to yell it -- just grunts and clicking noises.

Moments like this force a Dad to do a quick IQ check. Can you remember your Social Security number? Your age? What is the capitol of New Hampshire? You just need some fast reassurance that there is still something left between your ears.

Because once you have kids, you will someday find yourself getting absolutely hysterical about bathroom doors, or dirty socks, or using the wrong kind of cheese. And by that time you usually have just enough brain cells left to realize how stupid that is.

It is not just the yelling. There are plenty of times in every Dad's life when a little bit of yelling is absolutely necessary in order to restore the natural balance of things to the universe. For example, at 4:30 in the morning last weekend, after an exhausting evening of scientific research into the effect of martinis on consciousness, I woke up to what I really and truly believed was the angel Gabriel signaling the end of the world. And I opened my eyes to see Pookie standing two and a half inches from my ear blowing into an antique cavalry bugle we have hanging on our wall. "Look, Daddy!" she said proudly. "I can play the trumpet!"

And she could, too. Nice and loud. And yelling would have been a perfectly acceptable response, if I hadn't been afraid that the sound would make my head split open like a ripe melon.
So I didn't actually yell at Pookie that time. But oddly enough, the fact that I didn't yell made me feel stupid. Because if ever there was a time for real emphasis and clarity, that was it. And yet -- she really was playing the trumpet, and in between the horrible pounding pains in my head I was very proud of her. Which, when I thought about it, made me feel just as stupid as if I had yelled at her.

And it was then that it hit me: Feeling stupid is actually part of the job. Always has been. Always will be. It is unavoidable, and absolutely necessary.

Because no one who has ever lived can possibly be good enough to teach their kids all the things they need to know by example. That's why an all-wise nature has arranged for Dads -- so there will be someone around whose whole life shouts out, "Look! Don't be like this!" and the children learn what to avoid, which is a much better way to learn.

"Stupid is as stupid does," as Forrest Gump told us. And as a full time Dad, I do.


Saturday, February 7, 2009

Jeff Lindsay

"The More Kids Change, The More Dads Stay The Same"

I worry too much. I know this about myself. When I went to my college reunion last weekend, I worried that the plane would crash and leave my kids without a father. And when I realized how silly that was, I worried instead that the plane would crash and they would get a new father they liked better. And then I worried that I would have a lousy time at the reunion because either nobody would talk to me because they didn't remember me -- or else they wouldn't talk to me because they DID remember me.

I knew all this was dumb. My wife even told me it was dumb, which made it official. I worried anyway, and at the last minute I didn't want to go. But as always, my wife helped me think things through. "The tickets are paid for," she said. "You will go, and you will have a good time, or I will make you very sorry."

So I went. But just before I got on the plane and settled into worrying about engine fires, I worried one last time about my kids, Pookie and T.L. Bear. Bear was finishing up her last year of elementary school, which I felt was an important transition, and I didn't want her to feel lost or frightened. And because it was now summer, Pookie wanted to go into the pool all the time and she can't yet swim without her inflatable bathing suit. So as my wife shoved me out of the car at the airport, I said, "Hold Bear's hand a lot. And keep Pookie away from the water." My wife pushed a little harder, and before I knew it I was in the airport.

It doesn't really seem possible even now, but the plane was not hijacked and didn't explode. Even worse, I was about 20 minutes early all along the line. As a veteran traveler I knew this could only mean one thing: I was being set up. Somewhere along the line I was going to face a major disaster. I kept my eyes open -- and sure enough, my rental car was parked in slot #13. With a huge surge of panic, I knew this meant that something had happened to my kids.
I raced back into the terminal and called home. My wife told me that the kids were alive and unharmed and I would just have to believe her and why didn't I just drive up to the campus and have a good time like I had said I would?

So I did. But I couldn't shake the feeling that something awful was going to happen, either to me or the kids. And if they were okay, that left me. I finally arrived at my old college campus very nervous. I got out of the car and stood for a minute, waiting for a piano to fall on my head. It didn't; I wandered in to register. A lot of wrinkled, grey-haired old people were milling around in the room. They looked like they were all circuit court judges and investment bankers.

And then one of the circuit court judges shouted at me and grabbed my hand. It was my old roommate, "Stoner" Fleckman, and the shock of seeing him looking so old and conservative was much greater since I should probably just say that his nick-name, "Stoner," had nothing to do with an interest in geology, if you get my drift.

"Stoner?" I said uncertainly, still hoping he would say he was Stoner's father and had just come along because there was an open bar and a lot of people who liked to talk about real estate.
He flinched. "It's Representative Fleckman," he said. "Or just Arnold." He looked around the room and shook his head. "Good turnout, huh?"

I looked around, too. One or two people looked vaguely familiar. With a sinking feeling, I knew this crowd of balding, overweight people really was my class and there was only one explanation. An evil wizard had put a spell on my whole class and turned them into middle-aged people. Luckily, I must have cut class that day.

I stumbled through the cocktail party in shock and horror, relying heavily on the open bar. And then finally it occurred to me: Everybody in my class had gotten old -- that meant that something awful had actually happened now. I could relax and have a good time.

And I did. It surprised the heck out of me, but I did. And I discovered that most of my classmates still knew how to party in spite of the Republican disguises. We played the old songs and told the old stories and finally we all staggered to the dorm where we were staying and dropped into bed around 1 AM.

And around 4 AM the fire alarm went off. Campus security found Stoner and his old pal Muddy -- now a prosecuting attorney in Connecticut -- in the hallway. Apparently they had tried to light something -- it might possibly have been a cigar, I suppose, as Stoner and Mud tried to claim. Whatever it was, the smoke had set off the fire alarm, and there we all were, standing in the chilly pre-dawn in our pajamas.

It should have been very strange and uncomfortable -- suddenly, it is the middle of the night and you are in the middle of a large group of middle-aged people all wearing pajamas. I am pretty sure I saw something like that by Fellini one time. But oddly, it was not weird at all. I wondered why not -- and it occurred to me that I had already seen most of these people in their pajamas before, many years ago. The people were older and the pajamas more expensive, but nothing had really changed. For some reason, that was comforting.

And that weird feeling of comfort stayed with me through the whole weekend. It stayed with me all the way home, on two flights that were early. I finally got back to my house and sank into my chair, surrounded by my family. "Gotta go, Dad," Bear said. "I'll be late for my job."

"Your what?" I said as she swaggered out the door with a new grown-up air of confidence. Before I could recover, Pookie called out, "Daddy, watch this!" And she dove into the swimming pool and went right to the bottom. She came up a moment later, grinning from ear to ear. "I can swim under water!" she said to me, as my wife gave me CPR.

In all those years, everybody I went to college with stayed the same. And in one weekend, the kids were completely different.