“So what do you do?” Juan Valdez asked me from the adjacent couch. I was sprawled out on half a futon to his right and we were both waiting on the infamous Dr. Sanchez to return from upstairs. I had always thought it was kind of funny and almost unbelievable that Dr. Sanchez had a friend supposedly named Juan Valdez, and now I was being interrogated by him. He didn’t even offer me any coffee with his query.
“You should know by now not to ask a drug dealer that question,” the doctor said from behind the wall as he lumbered down the steps to the basement. The three of us laughed like a studio audience as Dr. Sanchez entered the room with hands full and handed me a shiny and cold green can of Modus Hoperandi before offering Juan Valdez a ginger ale on ice. I popped the top and slid the beer into my worn gray coozie while I tried to determine whether the big man on the couch was satisfied with and believed the doctor’s clever joke. I took a sip and restarted our conversation.
“Actually John, I stay home with my son,” I told him. It came out as natural and as comfortable as ever. It wasn’t always that way. I took another sip off the Modus and walked over to the table across the room to snag a tortilla chip. I dipped the chip into some guacamole and turned back towards him. He was a big man. Actually, “big” doesn’t really do him justice. He’s pretty much gigantic. He could have told me he was a former NFL offensive lineman or an out of shape professional wrestler that used to give Andre a run for his money and I would have believed him instantly. His hand was bigger than my head.
“That’s actually a great cover for selling drugs,” he said as he spit an ice cube back into his glass with a clink. He was completely serious. He actually believed Dr. Sanchez’s quip. I almost choked on the last part of a chip and quickly washed it down with a huge gulp of beer. Dr. Sanchez almost spit out a mouthful of his own Modus as we both attempted to speak at the same time.
“Ha! He’s not a drug dealer! Oh Johnny boy!” the doctor yelled, way too loudly for the distance between him and Juan Valdez.
“That’s classic,” I said underneath Dr. Snachez’s roar. I laughed into my beer. It was obviously more believable to be a drug dealer than a stay at home Dad. I blamed the beard, which was currently carrying three random fugitive drops of beer like a big hairy stroller, safe and sound. I used my hand to knock them away as Juan Valdez back-tracked a bit and said he wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that I was both.
I would soon come to learn that he’d pretty much seen it all anyways, including but hardly limited to the inside of a prison cell. His stories were about as large as he, but one look at him and you knew they were all true even if they were well behind him. Some people become addiction counselors by strategy only after attaining various college and professional degrees. Then there are those that can help people greatly in that field precisely because they’ve lived and learned all the lessons–sometimes in the absolute hardest ways possible–and survived to talk about it. Nine lives are for cats; from the stories he tells, Juan Valdez may damn well be immortal.
I, on the other hand, was still trying to conquer a mere toddler on a daily basis. I reclaimed my seat on the futon and watched Juan Valdez devour a hamburger in-between two pieces of wheat bread in roughly two bites. He almost finished chewing and looked over at me with bright eyes and excitement as Sanchez yelled something towards the television at a game he didn’t actually care about.
“So you are a stay at home dad, then?” the immortal one asked me, mid swallow. Stay at Home Dad was a job that wasn’t even on his radar, but he was genuinely intrigued.
“Yep,” I nodded, setting my beer on the table and preparing for the inevitable cross examination that usually follows when I tell someone ‘what I do these days.’
“You have one of those good jobs, am I right?” he half asked and half exclaimed, the look on his face taking the place of a high five.
I smiled, picked up my can of Modus, and thought about my past week as I downed the rest of my beer. I wasn’t sure I knew what working a “real” job felt like anymore. Getting going fast enough in the morning to make a 10:50 dentist appointment a couple days ago was probably the closest I had been to a morning commitment with someone other than my son in quite awhile. No, I’m no longer a working adult. Now, I live the life of an almost two year old, and I’m gradually realizing that I was totally made for it. Bi-Weekly paychecks are nice, but I’ve been recently thinking that I’d much rather just be a dad and do ‘what I do these days,’ which can pretty much be anything. Absolutely anything.
Of course, there is a healthy share of wanted and unwanted routine, just to keep me grounded. I may not have TPS reports to file, but there are some things I can count on every day: picking up toys, stepping on Cheerios, putting shoes on little feet, changing unbelievably nasty diapers, getting pestered for cocacao (chocolate milk) or cookies, watching something with trains or muppets on television, taking shoes off little feet, spinning the wheel of food for whatever it is he happens to want to eat that day, stepping on more Cheerios, putting different shoes on little feet, changing more diapers, and constantly dreading the daily nap confrontation. I can count on Jack trying to ride the dog at least once. I can count on slipping or tripping on a random toy at least twice.
I can also count on always feeling like I’m inside an episode of a children’s show. I’m kind of like Barney, in pajamas instead of a big purple dinosaur suit. From the moment I wake up I hear myself saying everything in a sing song manner and often just flat out singing songs. Didn’t know there was a song about toasting waffles? There is now. There is also a song about eating waffles, feeding leftovers to the dog, and loading the dishwasher. Hell, I’ve got a song for just about every moment of my day. Charles Mingus has nothing on me when it comes to improvisation. I don’t even think twice about it anymore. I bet I couldn’t even control it if I tried.
To make matters worse, I speak in weird voices all day long when I’m not singing, using words I would never want another adult to hear me utter. Plus, when I’m not the one talking, I constantly hear words that I can’t understand and have to try to translate anyways. I spend half the day repeating things I say over and over again and pointing out things he should pay attention to, and the other half of the day following Jack around as he randomly points at things and repeats their names, or what he thinks are their names, over and over and over again. We are constantly quizzing each other.
On nice days, we have a pretty regular walking route we take through the downtown Benson area of Omaha where I push Jack like a king in his chariot as he points at all the cars, trucks, and buses in between each shovel of crackers and pretzels into his mouth. Then we usually log some park time down the block, where I am often forced to swing alongside Jack instead of pushing him like a normal father and son. I’m not much of a swinger anymore. After two or three back-and-forths, I’m ready to vomit. But Mr. Jack won’t take any of my excuses, so I reluctantly swing away until I can convince him to let me watch him go down the same slide thirty-four times instead. Then he goes down the other one thirty-five times. Sometimes he just wants to throw sand or chase squirrels. Sometimes he just wants to sit on a bench and eat crackers. Sometimes he makes me swing again.
On bad weather days, I introduce him to my favorite albums while we dance. I hold him up and let him watch the records spin on my turntable. I show him how to play air guitar (which he can do) and metal horns (which he gets frustrated he can’t do). I chase him around the living room as we rock out to Drive By Truckers’ shows waiting for Mom to get home. I let him go through my shit and I let him wear my wife’s shoes. I let him play with my guitars and I join him on the ground as we push around little plastic trains and cars, though apparently I’m never doing it right (or I’m just doing it too good). I let him jump on and off the furniture when I need a break from him jumping on and off me. When I’m in a really good mood, I’ll let him break out the Play Doh, which usually puts both of us in a bad mood by the time I’m forced to pack it away again (mostly because Jack really isn’t ready to play with the Doh). I’m basically pestered until I empty the Play Doh from every can just so he can look at it, before I’m forced to build countless plains, trains, and automobiles from scratch that he in turn thinks are real toys and plays with until they are falling apart which makes him realize they are not and he starts to cry hysterically.
On the best days, he takes a nap.
And then there are those days where you find yourself so totally absorbed into the oddest moments. If you are lucky, those days are everyday. Days when you’re taking a piss and your son walks in, yells “Car!” and throws one of those Play Doh cars you just made into the toilet. All you can say is, “Yes Jack, that is a car. Good job, buddy,” and fish the Doh car out of the bowl. Then there’s the days when you spend an hour doing nothing but sitting in front of a computer screen with your son on your lap listening to Pearl Jam bootlegs while he’s hypnotized by the visualizations of the Windows Media Player and bobbing his head to the music. It’s one of those proud father-son bonding moments you’ve always imagined. Then he lets a big fart rip on your leg, gives you a sideways glance, and starts cackling.
One day Jack sat on my lap and pulled the zipper of my faded Chicago Bears hooded sweatshirt up and down for over twenty minutes in pure unexplained ecstasy. On another day we were listening to My Morning Jacket’s “Gideon” at a volume that probably would have been frowned upon by other caretakers as I held him under the ceiling fan, dancing him in and out of reach of the chains hanging from it. I had never heard a more grandiose laugh. His face, shining both in the occasional bright light of the fan and out of it, boasted a wide, enviable smile while his eyes were intent on following the movement of the chains and nothing else. He giggled incessantly. He reached, he grasped for the chains, and he must have turned the light on and off at least a hundred times. I will never hear that song again without thinking of that afternoon.
There was also the first time Jack saw the reflection you can make on a wall with a watch or a cell phone. He chased the little light dot all around the living room for almost an hour as I lay on the couch laughing my ass off. There was the whole week where we spent entire mornings playing bull and matador. I would yell, “Toro! Toro!” and wave his favorite fuzzy white blanket at him as he charged towards me and ran through it, often crashing into my shins or falling over onto the kitchen tile or an area rug. Then there was the day Jack discovered dust particles in the sunlight through a window. Or, more specifically the day he discovered that doing raspberries into the dusty rays of sun looked really cool. He just kept doing it. One zerbert after another into the air. He started yelling “Da Da!” and pointing, which is pretty much his universal command. I followed suit and contributed some saliva of my own into the show. It was another one of those perfectly random, perfectly memorable moments. Just two buddies, one almost two, the other almost two plus thirty-two, sitting in the middle of the hallway, in the middle of our home in Omaha, in the middle of a weekday, laughing hysterically while spitting into the sunlight.
I caught a glimpse of some sun rays ripe for the spitting coming through the window of Dr. Sanchez’ basement window and mentally rejoined the conversation I was in the midst of.
“I guess I do, man. I guess I do,” I answered, smiling back at Juan Valdez, “you are definitely right about that.” I wasn’t really guessing, but I had stopped thinking of it as a job awhile ago. “Or you could say that I’m lucky enough to not have to work a job,” I continued. It obviously can be hard work staying home and caring for a toddler with the attention span of a small dog, an extremely limited and vague vocabulary, and the emotional fortitude of a drunk divorcee on Days of Our Lives, especially if you’ve never done it before. But it’s hardly a job when it’s your own kid and not some other snotty midget. It’s way more important.
When I first took this on, I was holding tightly to some part of who I was outside of my house. Eventually I became comfortable in my new role. Later, I fell in love with it. And the longer I do this, the more I realize that it’s much more important who I am inside of my house. Sure, I’m not just a stay at home dad, but I am a stay at home dad, and I feel like I’ve been training for it my whole life. It is definitely one of those good jobs that Juan Valdez was talking about. He’s a wise man. The saying “do what you love, love what you do,” has never been more appropriate. And shit, my wife just got me my own debit card with my name on it and everything.