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.