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.


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