Back To School

 “I can’t believe summer vacation is almost over,” I said to the infamous Dr. Sanchez as he led the way to our seats with a beer in each hand.  I followed quickly with Jack in one arm and a draw string diaper bag hanging off my other shoulder.  “I don’t want it to end,” I continued.  I watched his pony tail swing abruptly to the right as he swung his head around to give me the evil eye and a smirk.

“What the hell are you talking about?” he inquired.  “Your life is one big summer vacation!” he continued, emphatically.

“Yeah, I suppose it is, isn’t it?” I responded with a chuckle.  “But, you know what I mean, don’t you?” I asked.

I could tell he probably did, but I went on anyways, “This will be over!” I waved my arm across the entire scene in front of us, spilling some beer on my son’s head below us.

As we took our seats in the shady part of Rosenblatt Stadium, trying to find respite from the horrid,  unceasing heat and humidity of late summer in Omaha, I knew he was right.  I had in fact found my dream job.  A job that really isn’t a job per se.  Of course it’s work, but it doesn’t feel like a job.  I don’t get paid, but the perks are priceless.  I can’t really sleep in, but there’s naptime scheduled if I ever want to join in.  Plus, I can wear my AC/CD pajama pants and Chewbacca t-shirt all day long, and still be the best dressed in my workplace.  My radio job was a peerless job, but this job is what I’ve been searching for my entire life. After all, the best job is no job at all.

Yes, my life over the past year has pretty much had an “Endless Summer” vibe to it, but the past few months of actual summer were even better.  After being trapped inside with a newborn baby throughout a rough Omaha winter, I dove cannonball style into every ounce of the summer.  My whole idea of “summer vacation” disappeared as soon as I was old enough for my first summer job, but like that fucking Lost island, you can apparently find it again if you know where to look.  This summer, I found it again. I also found myself losing track of days on multiple occasions.  Trust me, it’s a great state of mind.

For the past three months or so, the Professor was home more often than she was at her office.  I was able to let my childcare guard down a bit, allowing her some of the pleasures of greater Jack responsibility, and allowing myself the pleasures of letting her do so.  Throw in some visits from and visits to relatives and friends (aka babysitters), and my “job” suddenly became pretty damn near part time, freeing me up for every BBQ, brunch, and baseball game I could squeeze into my lazily busy schedule.  I spent weekdays at the pool, went on actual dates with my wife, and got drunk at outdoor concerts with my friends.  You know the simple two-word phrase in The Grateful Dead’s “Sugar Magnolia,” “sunshine daydream?”  Well, I’ve been living it baby, with the Jerry Garcia beard and everything. 

But, suddenly the pool is now closed for the summer.  The Omaha heat wave has broken, at least for the moment.  It’s starting to smell like football practice outside.  With a hint of evening chill on the front porch, comes a strange urge to stock up on notebooks, pens, and a flashy new Trapper Keeper.  Some part of me wants to register for classes, meet new teachers, and crack open new books.   I can try to deny it all I want, but it’s in the air.  It’s time to shake off the rust.  It’s time to get back to work.  It’s time to go back to school.  Though, I would argue that since my son was born, since I quit my radio job, since I moved to Omaha, and since I became a Stay at Home Dad, while I may have been living without a job, I’ve constantly been in school.

Not only have I learned how to take care of my son, I’m learning about my son, too. Even though he is only 1 year old, he is already his own little person with his own idiosyncrasies.  I’ve learned that my son loves to walk around with shoes on his hands.  I’ve learned that he has a weird obsession with ceiling fans and light fixtures.  I’ve learned that he loves to waterboard himself in the pool and the bathtub.  I’ve learned that he gets a kick out of walking backwards.  I’ve learned that he would prefer to eat grilled onions and black olives over anything else at the moment.  I’ve learned that he has a thing for stuffed Giraffes.  I’ve learned that he can spend an entire afternoon hunting for empty cicada shells and crushing them with his meat paw hands.  I’ve learned that he enjoys stuffing entire bananas into his mouth every single morning.  I’ve learned that he loves watching motorcycles start up and school buses drive by.  And, I’ve learned that toddlers can in fact get jock itch.

But, the most important lesson that I’ve learned this year–and keep getting reminded of daily–is this: every day is new.  Need more unpredictability in your life? Have a fucking kid.  It’s as easy as that.  Every day, Jack becomes someone else. I become someone else.  We both get older.  I may know how to be a father of a fifteen month old, but do I know how to be just as good of a father to a two year old, or a seven year old, or a seventeen year old?  Will I know?

No matter how much I think I have down, no matter how much I think I know, no matter how confident I become, in the end, I’ll always be clueless about something. I’ll always be naive. I’ll always be surprised. I’ll always be afraid. And I’ll always need to go back to school. The hardest work is ahead, in the coming days, the coming weeks, the coming months, and the coming years.  I may be becoming an awesome babysitter and a motherfuckin’ homemaking wizard, but I am only going into 2nd grade as far as this Dad shit is concerned. 

I always tell my wife that it’s hard to believe that the little guy running around our house is our son.  It’s hard to believe we’ve made it this far.  It’s hard to believe how much we’ve all changed.  It’s hard to believe we live in Omaha.  And it’s hardest to believe that I’ve been doing this Stay at Home Dad thing for a whole year already.  A year my son and I have spent getting used to each other.  What I’m really looking forward to, though, is getting to know each other.

The challenge ahead is going to be to figure out how to help Jack become a good son, a greater man, and perhaps one day, a Dad himself.  I’m still not sure exactly how to go about it, but I don’t need to know it all right now.  I’m perfectly fine dancing around the living room with Jack in my arms, our fists in the air singing along to the rousing chorus of one of my all time favorite songs, “Knowledge,” by the band Operation Ivy.  “All I know is that I don’t know! All I know is that I don’t know nothing!” Nothing, except that this is exactly what I want to be doing.  I am the luckiest man alive.

Saying goodbye to one of the best Summer vacations of my life is going to be difficult.  There’s still a part of me that doesn’t want to bid adieu to those BBQ’s, baseball games, back porches, and lightning bugs.  I’ve gotten used to having my wife around, the three of us with nothing better to do than enjoy every second of our first Omaha Summer.  I’ve gotten used to the help.  But alas, our favorite professor is back to work full time, leaving us to get used to her not being around all over again.  The good Doctor Sanchez is no longer available for day games. Everyone is going back to their regular routine. And soon, Jack and I will find ourselves once again sitting on the front porch swing every afternoon, just two dudes hanging out, learning about life on our own terms, pointing at school buses as they drive by, watching the real world go on around us and graciously, without us, until Mom comes home.

Rookie of the Year?

 “Really, dog? Really?” I questioned my rat terrier as she busted through the bathroom door to sit at my feet and beg for attention.  I figured it would happen.  I can’t remember the last time I shit without an audience.  It’s literally a crap-shoot that results in any combination of wife, kid, or dog, and sometimes all three, interrupting what I would prefer to be a super exclusive party of one.  I imagine my wife feels the same way, but as far as the dog and the kid are concerned, when Mom is at work it’s an event worth crashing time and again.  I’m not sure why I even entertained the idea of this time being any different.

I thought I was in the clear.  Jack was walking around with my sweaty running shoes on his hands and heading into the relatively safe zone of our living room.  The dog was nowhere to be seen.  I gave the toddler and his immediate surroundings a final once over before sneaking around the corner into our main floor bathroom.  I even managed to shut the door a bit, making sure to leave it open a crack to allow me to monitor the sounds of the front of the house while still providing me with a false sense of privacy.  I had barely settled in when the door burst open and the dog claimed her usual spot on the brown, circular bathroom rug in front of my feet.

For a dog that can usually care less about me or my affection, my bathroom time is apparently her favorite bonding time.  It’s quite odd, but like many things as of late, it has become a now predictable and nearly comfortable part of my life.  I pretty much expect it to happen, even though I thought I might get away with some solitary seconds on this occasion.  She looked up at me and whined, and in my vulnerable state, I quickly resigned myself to her presence.  At least it was only the dog.  I scratched her on her butt while trying to decipher the noises coming from the wandering one year old in the living room.  He was still keeping himself occupied, relatively quietly from what I could tell, so I attempted to dive into a magazine article I had been trying to read for what seemed like a month.

Then the alarm went off. At first, I had no idea what it was.  The high pitched loop of a siren would have had me pissing in my pants from the shock and surprise if they weren’t currently around my ankles.  Sometimes things just go your way, I suppose. Before I could collect my thoughts or my pants, Jack started screaming.  Although I couldn’t see his face, I knew he was in full on, dead-red, eyes closed, gasping for breath wailing mode.

It soon registered that Jack had merely gotten a hold of my keys and had triggered the panic button on my Hyundai, but it was already Def Con-1 outside of the bathroom. I jumped to my feet, a reflex honed over the past year forcing me to get up and sprint for the front room.  There was no time to wipe, let alone pull my pants back up.  I stepped out of them, almost stepping on the dog in the process, as we both raced to the hysterical wreck that was somewhere behind the couch.

I snatched my keys from the clutches of the crying kid and remedied the alarm situation with one finger as I scooped Jack up simultaneously and held him to me.  I proceeded to try to console him over the next couple of minutes as the dog, still barking from the excitement, tried to jump in my arms as well, scratching up my bare legs in the process.  There I stood, exactly one year from the start of my “stay at home” parenting experiment, naked from the waist down in the middle of the living room, fending off a terrier with one hand, wiping away toddler tears with the other, all the while doing my best to convince a freaked out fourteen month old that everything is going to be alright.  Then we all went back to the bathroom.

The panic button on my key chain isn’t the only button, literal or figurative, my son has learned to push over my past year as a Stay at Home Dad.   He knows how to make me smile.  He knows how to make me frustrated.  He knows how to make me cry.  He’s also learning very quickly how to get what he wants from me.  I, however, am not learning quite as quickly how to get what I want from him or figure out exactly what it is that he wants.  Sure, I’ve got the basics down.   But, I still have a long way to go.  I’ve learned how to keep my kid alive and well.  I’ve learned how to care for him on my own for hours, days, and weeks.  I’ve learned how to make him stop crying.  But honestly, I feel like that’s the easy part.

The other day I was talking to a new dad that I know and he admitted that he hasn’t changed a diaper yet.  It had been eight weeks, and he hadn’t touched one single diaper!  I didn’t even try to stifle my laughter, and I erupted right in front of him.

“I didn’t even know dads like you still existed,” I said, then I questioned him again.  “Not one fucking diaper change in two months?” I asked.

“I’m good with being the guy that hands her the baby, or hands her the wipes, or throws away the sealed up old diaper,” he responded, taking a sip from his drink. “I’m like the sidekick or something,” he added.

“Well…good for you!” I said sarcastically, “remind me not to let you knock me up.”  I took a bite of a slice of pizza in disbelief.  I wasn’t sure what was worse, his acceptance and even pride in being a hands-off, second class parent or the fact that the mother of his child actually let him get away with it?  Apparently I hadn’t just traveled back to Chicago for a visit, I had gone back in time.  It’s hard to relate to the sidekicks when you’re vying for Rookie of the Year.

Later that night, as I waited for sleep listening to the Pixies’ lullabies streaming out of the baby monitor for the billionth time, I thought about the conversation I just had.  If that guy had never changed a diaper on his own, there was no way he had ever been left alone with his child.  There was no way he had ever attempted to go for a run in a park with a dog and a cranky three month old on his first week in a new city.  There’s no way he has ever been handed a crying and stinking four month old first thing in the morning and left to figure it all out.   There was no way he’s had to decide whether or not to hide from mommy the witnessing of a first roll, first tumble, first crawl, first step, or first word so she wouldn’t feel left out.  There was no way he’s felt the anguish of a sabotaged nap when there was shit to do in the house.  There was no way he’s spent a week home alone 24/7 with a teething nine month old.

There was no way he’s been caught up in a never ending loop of picking up and cleaning up and picking up again.  There was no way he’s had to ask his wife for poker or beer money for a rare few hours away from childcare. There was no way he’s had to clean baby shit out of the bathtub before his wife got home.  There was absolutely no way he’s had to drive his son to the doctor on a Friday afternoon to get his personal diagnosis of jock itch confirmed by a doctor and then spent almost two weeks rubbing anti-fungal cream and zinc oxide on his son’s balls three times a day.  And there was no fucking way he’s ever stood mid-dump, naked from the waist down, in his living room with a crying kid in his arms trying to shut off a screaming car alarm.

But, there was also no way he’s reaped the confidence of taking his child on an amazing and enlightening 800 mile road trip alone.  There was no way he’s spent multiple hours in the middle of the day staring at lights on the ceiling with a starry eyed five month old.  There’s probably no way he’s gotten to be the first to see his son drink from a bottle all by himself with no one else around.  There was probably no way he’s had slow mornings sipping countless cups of coffee on the front porch swing absorbing the sight of a baby in a bouncer. 

There’s no way he’s taken his baby out to lunch while Mom’s at work.  There was no way he’s given himself a mohawk due to cabin fever and a desire to entertain a cooped up kid.  There was no way he’s spent dozens of weekday afternoons watching his son crawl up and down the empty aisles of a minor league baseball stadium when he wasn’t watching for stray foul balls.  There was no way he’s felt the elation of a private dance party for two to old punk rock records at full volume with no one else around.  There was no chance he’s fallen in love with his son while listening to Lullaby Led Zeppelin and changing his diaper. 

Sure, changing diapers isn’t everything.  It’s really only the beginning, but you have to make sure you don’t miss your chance to get started. I mean,  if you can’t handle the shit, you should have kept your pants on in the first place. I know Mr. Sidekick will have his moments, and I wish him and his family many amazing ones.  I wish for him the greatest variety of parental experiences.  I wish him luck.  I hope he decides to become more involved and not less. I hope he changes a diaper soon, at least for the sake of his wife.  I hope he finds a way to be all the dad he can be.  But I wouldn’t trade the last year of my life — the good, the bad, and the thousands of dirty diapers for all the beer in the world.

Go Go Jackzilla!

“I still feel kind of disoriented,” my wife said, as we sat down on two of the dozen empty bar stools in the corner pub down the street from my parent’s home in the Chicago suburbs.

“I know what you mean.  That movie was completely fucking…” I struggled to come up with the word as I struggled even harder to put my sorry excuse for a Nebraska driver’s license back inside my slowly deteriorating velcro canvas wallet with the cartoon basketballs on it.  I had finally succumbed to trading in my Illinois ID and twenty six bucks for a Nebraska one the week prior.  The real shit of it all was they didn’t just hand you your new ID like every other reasonable state in the union (Illinois and Pennsylvania),  they printed you out a paper copy and then you have to wait for the real hard copy to come in the mail. 

Our trip to Chicago couldn’t wait on Nebraska bureaucracy, so I was left having to explain to every single damn cashier, waitress, bartender, and bouncer in Chicagoland why I thought I could get away with using a printed out piece of paper to buy alcohol.  For the most part, I was able to convince my inquisitors of my more-than-old-enough age and ability to buy beer, but it was becoming a greater annoyance by the instance as the long weekend wore on.  It was completely asinine to be almost as old as Jesus when he was on the cross and be carded so hard everywhere. But it was even more idiotic that the state I now called home thought a black and white piece of paper would be acceptable identification anywhere east of the Missouri river.

With each weird look I got from one of the weekend’s beer gatekeepers, the urge to look them in the eye and say, “I have a one year old at home and a fucking full grown beard. If that’s not enough to make me legal for a beer, just kill me now,” grew exponentially.  Instead, I sheepishly explained the utter absurdity of the State of Nebraska while trying to make my oldest-looking beer-thirsty face at least a dozen times over our five days spent outside of Omaha. The stocky forty-something with the thick South Side accent that had greeted us upon entrance to Jordan’s Pub, though obviously hurting for any customers willing to pay for drinks in his establishment, was no different in his confusion over my proof of age or his desire to immediately let me in.  This whole license situation was making me a stranger in my hometown.  Everyone looked at me with suspicion.  My wife chalked it up to my beard.

Finally free to advance, we made our way to the back of the tavern to an “L” shaped bar. We eventually opted for two spots right in the crease of the upper case letter, after moving from our original bar stools because of the Professor’s aversion to the air conditioning vent above her.  A Schlitz bar light flickered to our right as the blond bartender barely looked up from her phone call, her voice drowning out the conversation that the bar manager was having with the regular at the edge of the bar near the door.  No one jumped to take our order so we scanned the scene, immediately regretting our decision, yet too far past the point of no return to walk away without at least one drink.  Forgetting that I never completed my sentence, my mind drifted to the final scene in the movie we just saw as I perused the tall cooler to my right for something worth drinking.  My wife cut me off before I could finish the thought or the sentence.

“Seriously, that movie was a mind fuck.  I’m not even sure if this is real,” she said with a smile motioning to our present scene as I followed her gaze around the bar trying to use some Jedi shit to get the attention of the bartender.

“If this is a dream, you should just reach behind the bar and grab us a few,” I said.

“Maybe I can make the beer better while I’m at it,” she smirked. “That would make me the ultimate Architect, wouldn’t it?” she asked. 

We had just come from close to three hours inside a dark theater watching Inception.  The sun had disappeared while we were inside.  Combined with the contrast of the outdoor heat and humidity to the cold air of the theater, the frenetic back and forth suspense ride that was at the core of the Summer blockbuster left us dazed and more than slightly confused during our walk to the car.  The Professor was obviously disoriented, and, though sober, was driving like a cautious drunk as she maneuvered the Hyundai awkwardly of the parking lot and across town until we reached the bar.  If there was ever a moment to get yourself grounded on some bar stools with beer, baseball, and post-film conversation, this was it. 

Not helping matters on the dream vs. reality end of things, the place we had chosen was a place we had driven past a million times but had never gone inside.  It seemed odd that we ever would go there, and even odder when we actually pulled into the empty parking lot.  Aside from the one obvious regular at the front end of the bar, the dude that carded me, and the blond bartender on the phone, we were the only people in the place. It was Twilight Zone empty. There was no volume coming from the any of the three TVs and no music playing. 

“Do you guys want another round?” the blond bartender finally asked a few minutes later after she put aside her cell phone.

Another round? What the hell was she talking about?  We hadn’t even ordered the first round.  Didn’t she just see us walk in?  Oddly enough, she even started to open a tap and start up a pint before turning back around and realizing that she had no idea what we were drinking nor what we were going to ask for.  We didn’t even know.  Things were not getting easier for us.  I was even starting to question reality now.  I searched the walls for answers.

Across from us was a poor selection of draft beers, and a flat panel TV broadcasting the White Sox game.  They were playing a west coast team, so we were able to see the first pitch despite our post movie timing and our futile attempt at finding a better place to go.  To the right was a fridge full of domestic bottles, Hawaiian Punch, energy drinks, Smirnoff Ice, and tall boy cans.  To the left of the television was a black board with specials announcing a free burger and fries with any beer purchase that wasn’t a domestic bottle.

Though not particularly in the bar burger eating mood, it was easy to see that my wife was mulling over the possibility, as was I.  With a deal like that, I couldn’t believe the place wasn’t packed, loud, and greasy.  However, our building excitement was quickly extinguished once our minds registered the fact that it was after the designated hours which were written in fluorescent marker right under the special.   It was almost as disappointing as our beer choices.  It all started to make sense.  The more I surveyed the scene, the more I discovered that this probably wasn’t a weird dream after all.  Nope.  It was just a mediocre bar, the worst bartender of all time, and bad timing.  We reluctantly started a tab, determined to make the best of our extremely rare date night.

“Maybe this is a dream,” I suggested, taking my first gulp from my High Life, and checking the time on my phone. “We’re up past ten on a Monday, we were just at a new movie that wasn’t on Netflix, in an actual outside-of-our-house movie theater, and now we’re at a bar,” I continued.

“With no kid,” she added.

“No kid!” I repeated. “Exactly! Let’s get a beer or two down before we wake up,” I suggested as I offered a toast.

It’s no exaggeration to say that being away from your kid for a night with your wife can feel like a dream.  When you’re used to spending just about every waking second of every day with a fourteen month old, being on a date by yourselves can feel downright strange.  Moving to Omaha and giving up that instant support system, and bullpen of trusted babysitters at beck and call, has forced us to do things with Jack, do them alone, or not do them at all.  I never knew how much I took for granted the sweet, simple luxury of going out to the movies with my wife before our little guy came along.  Now being away from him for the night bordered on the surreal.  Hell, every second of my life since the midwife yanked Jack out of the Professor’s poor vagina has been pretty fucking surreal.  Who needs movies when it seems like you’re living inside of one every day?

As the parent of a fourteen month old, most of the time I feel like I’m in a disaster movie.  Think Twister, or better yet, Godzilla in a fucking onesie.  Sometimes, it’s as if he’s King Kong, the Cloverfield monster, and the Stay Puft Marshmallow man rolled into one.  Do you remember Rampage?  The arcade game where you picked your monster and unleashed havoc on city after city was always my favorite growing up.  I would pop quarter after quarter into that machine at the bowling alley while waiting for my parents: climbing buildings, eating helicopters, and chasing after helpless citizens. I never imagined that one day I’d be living it, and that I’d be one of the helpless citizens.  Jackzilla is loose, and I’m left cleaning up in his wake of destruction. Over and over and over and over and over again.

Like most Summer blockbusters, it all started over the 4th of July weekend.  Jack had just started walking.  Sure, he had taken steps previously, but now he was doing it unprompted and for dozens of steps at a time.   By July 8th, Jack was no longer resorting to crawling after falling.  I was on the phone with my brother when it first happened.  Jack walked from the kitchen through the dining room into the living room, fell, then got right back up and walked straight past me to my pair of shoes near the front door.  He picked up the shoes, put them on his hands, then stood up and walked to the Professor’s home office where he used the shoe hands to knock an entire shelf of books to the floor.  I was so excited, relaying the play by play and color commentary to my brother over the phone while filming it on a camcorder, that I didn’t even notice his new-found destruction technique.  He was officially walking and I was beaming.  I couldn’t wait to call my wife and show her the video.

By that Friday, he was walking around the Pizza Shoppe like he owned the place, and I had spent the past forty eight hours chasing after a cherubic tornado.  It only took me a day before I knew why everyone kept telling me to “watch out when he starts walking,” and “don’t be in such a hurry to see him walking, and “use a condom.”  Once again my own naivete as a parent came up and smacked me right in the face with a strawberry juice and drool coated meat paw.  Then it went and knocked the books off the shelf again.  Holy shit, man.  I spent an entire afternoon picking up those same damn books and the fucking sign language flashcards that were on the shelf, which would scatter instantly throughout the room with each damaging blow to the bookshelf.  I never did learn to put the flashcards somewhere else, and he wasn’t too keen on learning to obey my “no” commands either.

My wife and I have always been against “child-proofing” our house.  Our theory is that if you teach your child to behave appropriately, you may have a few appendages broken off Beatles figurines, a couple of cracked dishes, and dozens of man-handled books all over the floor at first, but eventually you’ll save yourself a lot of headaches.  We have no idea if our theory is correct, obviously, but, combined with our utter lack of desire to actually go about doing what it takes to child proof your house, that’s what we’re going with.  It’s an easy decision to make for the parent that doesn’t have to run from and after Jackzilla for an entire day. I, on the other hand, have to play the role of reluctant yet empathetic hero locked into a one on one battle of wills with a cloth-diapered demon.

I’ll sometimes wake up in the middle of the night, sweaty from a nightmarish flashback of the day before.  The monster, naked, stomping around clumsily, tipping over talking red dump trucks, launching a little yellow car over his shoulder, kicking a wooden airplane, and knocking over the books again.  Everywhere he has been is marked with his presence, his scent, and his saliva. Animals lie motionless about the area.  Food scraps are scattered ubiquitously. Cheerios are pulverised.  Ringo is missing an arm and a head.

Then comes the noise.  First, he opens his mouth wide, baring way too many teeth for a monster his age.  He swings his baby blond monster mullet from side to side.  Then he wrinkles his brow and unleashes a great roar.  His screech is piercingly harsh, coming from the depths of his desire to communicate, paralyzing me with annoyance, and forcing my wife to run out of the house and go to work at any hour of the day.  When he finds water, he splashes violently, drowning the little pirate guy and tossing his boat onto dry land, screaming all the while.  Removing the beast from water after he is exposed to it, or saying “no” to anything for that matter, is apparently akin to torturing him, or at least taking his milk cup away before he’s finished.

He runs with a confused sense of purpose, despite not having entirely grasped the concept of walking or, more importantly, balance. This presents an entirely separate set of problems: furniture is knocked over, he slips repeatedly in the pool, he trips, he falls down, he bumps his head, he smashes his face into foot rests, he tumbles again, and again, and again.  He’ll chase the dog until he ends up rolling down the hill in the backyard because he doesn’t quite understand downhill or uphill.   And though he seems to be understanding more and more what I am saying to him, you never quite know if you’re making any sense to the creature or if it simply learns by its mistakes.  He just keeps stomping, and tripping, and getting back up, and eating, and running, and tripping over the same object over again. 

The falls he takes they pay stunt doubles to do in the movies.  They leave me cringing at my sweet little nemesis’ pitfalls, but they don’t phase the cheeky monster at all.  It’s really like babysitting my friend Tim when he’s walking zombie blacked out drunk.  He’s blond.  He’s half naked.  He feels no pain though he falls down a lot.  He knocks shit over, he headbutts people, he mumbles and moans, he eats with abandon, and you never quite know if what you are saying is getting through to him.  He just keeps going, with no remorse for the wreckage he has sewn or the drinks he has spilled.  He is pretty much unstoppable. Let down your guard, and the books will be on the hardwood floor again.   

Lucky for me, I have a lot of experience with Godzilla.  We go way back.  All the way back to the fifth grade at Our Lady of the Ridge School.  That October, I was finally able to host a sleepover birthday party.  Five dudes, some pizza, Nerf indoor golf, staying up late watching my buddy Greg hump a pillow and pretending it was Christie Brinkley, and scary movies on VHS.  The scary movies were key.  The precedent was set at the other Jason’s legendary sleepovers the two prior years.  At Jay’s house, we got to watch all the classics: Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, Ghoulies 2, and Friday the 13th part 7.  We would watch them one after the other as we drank generic Jewel pop till we puked while his Mom smoked cigarettes at the kitchen table.

The guys all expected something along those lines.  It was practically Halloween after all! But I knew there was no way my mom would let that go down.  I told her to get a scary movie, but there’s no way she was coming back with something rated “R.”  She came home with The Return of Godzilla starring the Perry Mason dude and a bunch of frightened Japanese extras.  My heart sank. The party’s trajectory took a sudden downturn.  Lucky for me, we were a mere two hours away from Greg humping the pillow.  Thereafter, nobody even thought about the movie. And though it was mocked, we did watch at least half of it.  That’s all I needed.

I learned quick how to deal with a beast like Godzilla: you can’t.  All you can do is run around flailing your arms and pray he doesn’t smash the important stuff. If that doesn’t work, you just beg for the kick and hope it’s all just a weird dream.

Father’s Day

“Um…Mr. Miller, you might want to check out the other side,” my friend Jay reluctantly pointed out to my Dad who was already livid and screaming at the slight damage to the mirror on the left side of my car.  I had avoided a collision with another car by driving my white ’85 Chrysler Le Baron convertible in and out of a ditch on the side of the road, stopping just short of a cemetery fence.  It was pouring cold rain on the day before Thanksgiving as I dealt with a police officer while four of my friends were huddled on the side of the road half dressed in hockey equipment surveying my father who was surveying the damage to my car.  As is pretty often the case when my Dad is involved with something, especially something unpleasant, he was huffing and puffing and yelling his head off.  The problem was that the side he was screaming about was barely damaged.  It was the right side of the car that took the brunt of the ditch.  I knew he would have to see that side of the car eventually, but I still wasn’t too pleased with my buddy for directing him to it.

My stomach sank as I signed the warning ticket from the police officer and headed back over to my poor automobile, which was receiving the bulk of my Dad’s stream of venom.  To add salt to the wounds of my wrecked first car, I had driven it without permission and without doing a satisfactory job of cleaning the house before I left for the pickup hockey game.  To say I was a 16 year old in deep shit was an understatement.  There’s nothing like having to watch your Dad completely lose it in front of your friends on the side of a busy Chicago street on what should have been an otherwise pleasant day off from school and then have to drive your half smashed and fully lopsided car, bumper dragging, through the cemetery.  I felt like driving it right into one of the graves.  It would have been better than dealing with whatever awaited me when I got back home.  It was sure to be one Happy Fucking Thanksgiving in the Miller home and I was sure I wouldn’t be able to drive anywhere until at least the Fourth of July.

My friends were laughing their asses off in the backseat re-enacting my Dad’s earlier outburst outside the car, oblivious to the tears I was trying to hold back as I struggled to guide what was left of my Chrysler to the other end of the cemetery and down the street to my driveway.  After all, it wasn’t the first time they heard my Dad blow his top.  Yelling is pretty much his claim to fame, and when it’s not your Dad, your car, your savings, or your impending punishment, it’s hard not to laugh it up I suppose.  In fact, it would go on to become one of their favorite stories to recount to this day. With distance, it’s also become one of mine.

As I sat in an Old Market patio and enjoyed a solitary beer after a surprise Father’s Day massage on a surprise Friday off from my child care duties, I thought about my father and I thought about my son.  I thought about my father’s reaction to and relationship with my son.  I thought about what being a Dad means and how much my own father means to me.  I thought about what I loved about my Dad and what I didn’t.  I thought about my changing definition of fatherhood, my changing perception of my father, and the changes I was going through now that I was a father myself.  But mostly, I kept thinking about that accident, how my father reacted, and how I would react if I was in his shoes.

I loved that car ever since my Dad brought it home, proud to pass it on to his first driving-aged son.  It took my entire savings account, all of my 8th grade graduation money, and wages from periodic work for Hallmark Cards with my mother to get it fixed, yet it still looked lopsided from behind and would remain a crooked Chrysler for the rest of my time with it.  I drove it anyways, though it was never the same as before the accident.  It’s been proven time and again that I can’t have nice things.  My father, on the other hand, takes meticulous care of everything, and everything is always nice, especially his cars. I have often tried to follow his example, but I just don’t have it in me. It’s something that I now find so admirable about him.  At other times in my life I found it utterly fucking annoying.  That’s pretty much my relationship with my Dad in a nutshell: adoring admiration meets antagonistic annoyance. 

The roadside rage incident is just one of many shining examples of my father’s legendary temper and his proclivity to raising his voice in any and every situation.  There is no one who yells better than my father.  The littlest thing could provoke the most intense response.  Often irrational, and always emotional, yelling is how my father communicates.  It’s how he shows his anger, his fear, and as odd as it sounds, his love.  It’s also odd how comforting my father’s roar can be when it isn’t directed at you, how safe you feel when that emotion has got your back.  If warranted, there’s no better person to have standing up for you and yelling in support of your cause.

Sure, my father’s “love” can backfire on you and keep you off an all-star team here or there, disrupt an entire Sunday afternoon at the hockey rink, or force you to watch your father and football coach get into fisticuffs on the fifty yard line.  That was the only time I had ever seen my father actually hit someone, but that coach was a prick and a biter.  Yes, a biter.  Imagine watching your 8th grade football coach bite your dad on the practice field and then your Dad practically knock him out.  It was the talk of my friends for months.

It was also the kind of stuff that felt like it meant a lot and embarrassed the hell out of me at the time. But looking back on it, it was way better than having nobody there to get your back, and I wasn’t going to be a professional athlete anyways.  I only played football because he did.  It took me until sophomore year in High School to get the balls to tell him I wasn’t into it.  It took until senior year before I felt comfortable not participating in organized sports altogether.  The funny thing is that he ended up seeming more proud of me for the newspaper stories I would eventually write and art projects I would create than any of my exploits on the baseball diamond, hockey rink, or football field anyway.  It was only me that felt like I had to be good at something he was good at. Turns out, I never needed to be my father, but that didn’t stop me from wanting to.  Unfortunately it took me some time before I realized that filling his shoes wasn’t necessary, what really mattered was learning from him how to fill my own.

On the April Fool’s Day after his 18th birthday, my Dad’s draft number came up.  Nothing would ever be the same for him again.  To this day I can’t wrap my head around what it must have been like to spend the twilight of your teenage years amidst the horror of a war in Vietnam.  At an age when I was ditching out on 8AM classes, living on $1 Whoppers, and never missing a Thursday night kegger at the Rugby House, he was trying to stay alive and helping others survive on Hamburger Hill: seeing things and doing things no one should ever have to see or do.   He would return home with a shrapnel ridden leg and side effects from battles and injuries that plague him to this day.  By the time I was old enough to understand any of it, that part of my Dad’s life was more mythical than anything, with only the scars, medals, and faded Polaroid photos as evidence that it ever even happened.   

In my ever present quest to relate to my father I’ve poured over those photos, the medals, and the letters from his time there.  His Vietnam experience is just the tip of the iceberg that is the mystery of my father that I’ve been trying to solve my entire life.  I’ve absorbed every rare personal insight he’s offered over the years.  I’ve read his favorite books.  I’ve watched his favorite movies. I’ve also spent hours with his yearbooks and football highlight videos, scavenged his junk drawers, and “borrowed” his clothes.  I’ve even taken possession of his record collection and buried myself in his favorite artists and albums in attempt after attempt at trying to get inside the man that is my Dad–developing a wicked Grand Funk and Bob Seger habit in the process as well.  Lately, I’ve even noticed that I see a lot of my Dad in many of my closest adult friends.  The men in my life who I have been most drawn to are men that, consciously or not, remind me in some way of my father.  Even my favorite radio deejays remind me of him.  It seems that through the years, as I’ve worked to distance myself from my Dad and forge my own identity, I’ve also been perpetually trying to get closer to him and the man that he is at the very same time.  The father-son relationship can be needlessly complex sometimes.

Through all of this simultaneous distancing and searching, what I have slowly discovered is a man with a big heart beneath the guise of a hard shell.  Sure, he can be loud, crabby, stubborn, worry too much, and loves to offer unwanted advice, but he’s also the hardest worker I know, a generous family man, a loyal husband, a consistent friend, and usually the life of the party with the ability to talk to anyone about anything and close a sale with an artist’s touch.  My Dad has succeeded at more things than I have even tried.  But, most importantly, I’ve realized that my father is the epitome of the man you want on your side: on the job, on the field, in the fox hole, and most importantly in the home.  He wants to make sure that those he cares about get a fair shake, even when he doesn’t.  As it was when I was a kid in the backseat of his car or on the back of his bike, having my Dad around makes things feel safe.  You know that when a problem arises he will do everything in his power to make things right.  I don’t know if I can ever be that guy, but I want to try.  As I’ve uncovered the man behind my Dad, I’ve uncovered the man who I am, and discovered the man I want to be.

It’s a shame that his desire to give his children a better life than himself often forced him to be apart from those very lives he was trying to improve for large amounts of time.  Whether emotionally or physically, he felt the distance was a necessary evil on the road he had taken. It was hard on all of us, but now that I’m a father I know that it had to be most heartbreaking for him.  It’s an even greater shame that I was ever embarrassed by him, didn’t heed his advice, or brushed him off as a temperamental blowhard.  But, at least I’m learning.  I’m learning to appreciate the little things. I’m learning from his triumphs and I’m learning from his mistakes.  I’m learning from his shortcomings and I’m learning from his strengths.  I’m even learning to look beyond the yelling.  I want him to know how grateful I am for his sacrifices, the example he set, and most of all for his love, which is becoming ever clearer with hindsight and distance. 

Looking back at that November car accident in the rain almost two decades ago, I now know that most of his screaming on the side of the road was because he was afraid for my safety and the safety of my friends.  Seeing that we were in fact unharmed and completely okay, he unleashed his temper onto my stupidity, my disobedience, and the damage to the convertible I was lucky enough to be able to drive before that day.  He was screaming at me out of love, and boy did he love me that day.  But there’s more to my father than the volume of his voice.  It betrays the man who he really is.

Throughout my life I’ve always wished my Dad would have yelled less and talked more, reacted less and thought more.  I’ve come to realize that those wishes were not so much to change who my Dad is, but just make it easier for me as his son to relate to the man that for so much of my life was bigger than life itself.  He was the football star, the ladies man, the war hero, the provider. He was a Dad in the most mythical sense of the word; becoming him was an impossibility.  I really had no choice but to follow my own path, but I can’t discount the trail he blazed ahead of me despite our divergence.

“What I think is great, is that Jack reacts to men a lot better than most babies I have been in contact with,” my Dad said while we were at a mutual favorite South Side Chicago spot, Wonderburger.  It was my Dad’s second favorite burger joint, the only one still standing, and my absolute favorite place to go with my Dad.  It was one of our special traditions.  I have many dear memories of my Dad taking me out for burgers to places he frequented many years before, sometimes with his Dad.  He was sharing more than his favorite foods, he was sharing a part of who he was,what he liked, and giving me more intimate insight into the man behind the Dad with a chocolate malt on the side.  It always felt like I was being welcomed into a special club when I got to go somewhere alone with my father.  They were some of my favorite times, and still are.

This time, we were at Wonderburger and it was my idea and my treat.  A way to say thanks for being not just a great Dad but an even better Grandfather.  He had just spent a day and a night taking care of my nine month-old son on his own while my wife and I were enjoying a weekend in the city.  Never really having to handle that role as a Dad, he now had his chance with his first grandson.  Suddenly, my Dad was in my shoes for a day, in some odd role-reversal of the father-son circle.  It may have taken him awhile to come to terms with my radio career, but his respect for my current role as father and caretaker happened almost immediately.

“I’m sure that has a lot to do with you and the amazing job that you are doing with him. I mean it when I say I’m proud of you,” he continued in a rare voice, soft and slightly guarded.  I never enjoyed a bite of a hamburger like I did the one I took after he said that. It made up for the shockingly sub-par order of curly fries.  It made my day, week, month, and year.  It made my life.

My Dad and I, for better or worse, have more in common than either of us would probably like to admit.  Yet, we’re also different enough that we’ve been forced to deal with those differences and accept the other for who we are.  What’s important now is getting past seeing each other as father or son and start to see each other as men and, more importantly, friends.  I now know how I am different from my father, and I also now know that that’s perfectly okay.  I don’t need to be my father to follow his example.  My son won’t need to be me to follow mine.  All that matters is that I give him an example to go by.  I need to be the man that defines what being a man is to my son, even if it differs from the man my father is or the man I am at the moment.  My gratitude for this chance with my own son is beyond words. 

As a father, it’s hard to not have expectations.  It’s hard to not want to create a mini-me.  But as a son, I’ve learned that to be the best father possible I have to go into this with no expectations and no ego.  Sometimes I’ll want to yell at him.  Sometimes I’ll need to yell for him.  But in the end, it’s his life. I just have to make sure that I show him the way when warranted and that no matter what, I’m always on his side.  That’s what I’ve learned from my Dad.

Happy Birthday Beautiful Boy

“Shut the fuck up and let me finish!” the infamous Dr. Sanchez yelled at another one of my party guests.  My back yard neighbor didn’t heed the command and started rambling again.  “Shut your fucking mouth and let me finish!” the determined professor screamed again.  I didn’t even know what they were arguing about.  It was one of those late night drunken arguments over some unnecessarily heated issue.  We were sitting on my back deck finishing the beer from the cooler next to the now empty keg of Lucky Bucket IPA.  From what I could tell they were arguing the same side of a point but in different terms.  They both wanted to talk and neither wanted to listen.  I was laughing loudly at the hilarity of the scene as well as in a mild attempt to stifle any impending malice between the two guests.  It was my son’s first birthday party after all: if there was going to be a fight he should at least be up to see it.  Instead, he was sleeping not so soundly inside, as he unfortunately had been for most of the day. 

“You both need to shut up,” my wife whisper-yelled from the doorway.  All of the other guests had left and my sister and her husband had already skipped out on the scene in the backyard for the comfort and relative peace of the couches inside.  My obviously drunk neighbor, who I had just met earlier that evening, took my wife’s hint, shook our hands, apologized, and headed out of my yard towards his own.  The goateed doctor and myself shared a laugh and a final beer as my brother in law rejoined us on the deck.  I could tell by the smile on his face what kind of shape he was in.  I had seen it on a few other occasions, usually followed by my sister or father telling me to cut him off or security wanting to escort him out of the ballpark. You can always tell he’s feeling good by his smile, or his desire to bum and smoke cigarettes. It was no different that evening.  As soon as he realized my neighbor smoked, he was best buddies with him for a good hour, bumming cigs and sucking them down every ten minutes or so.

“What’s up with your neighbor man?” he semi-slurred in my general direction.

“What’s up with you Danielsan?” I responded, poking his gut like the Pillsbury Dough Boy.  I didn’t have to do the giggle. 

“He was asking me if I or anyone else at the party had any blow,” he continued.  I didn’t really believe him, but then again, I didn’t disbelieve him.  I suppose it was a reasonable question.  I know I’m rarely at a child’s first birthday party where there isn’t any cocaine.

“You should have told him the birthday boy had bumped it all before he got here,” I smirked, knowing full well that the only white stuff on the premises was to powder Jack’s ass, not his nose.  It takes balls to ask perfect strangers at a kid’s party if they have coke, I thought as I watched Dr. Sanchez disappear into the house not to be heard from or seen again that night.  I surveyed the remnants of our all-day birthday extravaganza scattered around the backyard, grabbed a finger full of icing off what was left of the cake, and smiled thinking about the turn my son’s second first birthday party had taken as I chased the frosting with the last swig of a luke-warm Modelo.

As we waved goodbye to my sister and her family the next morning, watching as they pulled away in the mini-van they borrowed from my parents, my wife and I hugged in the driveway, exhaling for what seemed like the first time in quite awhile.  Their departure closed out the first week of visitors and celebrations of Jack’s first year.  It would be another day or two before we had to start preparing for party number three and our fourth set of house guests.  Jack was inside, still trying to sleep off the sickness that had overtaken him the day before.  There’s nothing like waking up with a fever and a cough on the day of your big kegger birthday party.  And there’s definitely nothing like dealing with said sick one-year-old while trying to clean, cook, bake, and entertain not only party guests, but house guests as well.  Jack spent much of his party in the arms of my sister or asleep in his crib.  The guest of honor didn’t even touch the cake, nevermind the keg.  Luckily, first birthday parties are for the adults anyways, and we more than made up for Jack’s lack of enthusiasm.  Plus, it was just a few days in what would eventually amount to a two week bash with rotating house guests, four Blackhawks playoff games on TV, three cakes, two Omaha Royals baseball games, and a trip to the zoo. He would also have another tooth when it was all said and done.

I suppose it was only a matter of time before Jack really got sick anyways.  When I picked up my parents from the airport at the beginning of the first week, it took mere seconds before I realized that they were both sick and destined to poop all over our party plans.  My Dad had some undetermined illness which landed him in the emergency room the night before and my Mom had what she tried to blame on allergies, but which seemed more like some kind of South Side Chicago bird flu. Determined to not let Mr. and Mrs. Seinfeld bum us all out with their problems and illnesses, we ventured on, adding Jack’s other Grandpa to the mix and starting the week’s festivities over beer and Reubens at my current favorite Omaha pub, The Crescent Moon.  Jack ate pickles and french fries while my wife and I let the grandparents take charge.  We we relaxed at the other end of the booth sharing smiles and discussing the two weeks of Birthday Festival ahead of us in honor of the 50 weeks of parenting that were now behind us.

As I enjoyed Jack enjoying his grandparents even more than the fries, I thought back to those 50 weeks and the whirlwind adventure that brought us to this moment.  A year prior we didn’t even know we would be moving to Omaha.  I was living the rock and roll lifestyle as an underpaid radio deejay and my wife was about to be unemployed with a PHD.  We had serious worries over how we would be able to support the unborn child that was about to change our lives.  We had no idea what to expect over the course of the summer, nonetheless the upcoming year.  Just about every aspect to our lives was completely up in the air.   Then came Jack and suddenly he was the only thing that seemed to matter.  Suddenly, we had to figure it all out on the fly.  If we could keep him healthy and alive, hopefully everything else would fall into place.  Lucky for us, it has so far. 

Being a “Stay at Home Dad” was something I always thought would be really cool to do, but my wife and I never really expected to have a kid.  As John Lennon once said, coincidentally enough in a song about his newborn son, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.”  Well, life happened.  Now I was in my Omaha backyard putting a child seat on my bike. Yes, a fucking child seat on the GT mountain bike I received for my High School graduation!  If it wasn’t official before, it became official as I tightened the last bolt.  I went from experienced deejay to experienced Dad with one final twist of the adjustable wrench.  Bike riding would never be the same, just like everything else in the past year.

Prior to these 52 weeks I stayed up late, slept late, worked a sweet 10AM-7PM workday playing on the radio, and didn’t do much around the house but dishes and lawn mowing.  I left everything else to my wife.  She’s always been the handy one anyways, and better than me at just about everything except talking.  I barely knew how to hold a baby, nonetheless how to care for one by myself.  But now look at me: I’m using wrenches, cleaning under and behind things, digging gardens, pulling weeds, composting, cooking dinner, changing and washing diapers, and appeasing a toddler tyrant on my own, all while not having slept past 8AM in over a year.  Shit, I remember a time when 10:30 at night was too early to go out.  Now, I’m usually asleep before the sports segment on the local news. Sometimes the differences in my life blow my mind.

I swore I would never talk baby talk, but now I have to catch myself before I direct it to an adult out in public.  I now push a stroller on my daily jog.  I leave the house in my pajamas without brushing my teeth.  I consider an uninterrupted trip to the bathroom a luxury.  I don’t own a piece of clothing that hasn’t been puked or drooled on.  I find cheerios in my pockets.  I can’t leave the house without a diaper bag.  I use words I never thought I would.  The site of another person’s feces hardly phases me now.  I have touched a penis other than my own and I wasn’t even in an orgy.  And most importantly, I refuse to have sex without birth control.

For all the amazing changes that I’ve seen my little jaundiced newborn son go through in the past year, it’s the changes that I’ve gone through that have been the most surprising and beneficial to everyone involved.  I’m more responsible, more helpful, more patient, more self sufficient, and less selfish than I have ever been in my life.  My son will be better because of it, and I’m better because of my son and the example my astounding wife sets for us all.

Before Jack, in the beginning of every summer my wife and I would pack up our car and our closest friends and venture to a Tennessee farm for a week of Rock and Roll debauchery called Bonnaroo.  Nowadays, it’s looking like we’ll be opening our home to those same friends and our families for a multi-day celebration of a different sort.  As we wrapped up the final weekend of Jack’s birthday-fest sitting under our Bonnaroo canopy (now on our back deck in Omaha) amongst some of those same dear friends that we once danced with and sweated alongside in the hot Tennessee sun year after year, the name Omahroo was thrown around as a replacement for our Bonnaroo tradition.  It works, but I kind of like the sound of Jackaroo better.  After all, it is all about him now anyways, and I can’t wait to see how things are going to continue to change. 

To go back to that John Lennon song,
“I can hardly wait
To see you come of age
But i guess we’ll both just have to be patient
’cause it’s a long way to go
A hard row to hoe
Yes it’s a long way to go.”

One year down, all the rest to go.  I couldn’t be more excited or content with my life and the direction it has taken.  Happy Birthday to my own beautiful boy.  See you at Jackaroo 2!

Finding Normal

“Shit. We’re about to get pulled over,” my wife said as she put on her blinker and changed lanes on our last stretch of I-29.

“Huh?” I responded, looking into the rear view mirror while trying to gather my bearings.  Shit.  It took me a few seconds to notice them, but there they were, the flashing blue and red lights of the Iowa state trooper in the mirror.  I had been trying to sleep away the last forty miles of our drive back to Omaha and the lingering effects of our late night in Kansas City while my wife was apparently channeling Speed Racer. She often does that when I’m not paying attention.  “Way to go Bubba,” I said as we pulled onto the shoulder and she turned on the hazard lights on our Hyundai.

“Fuckin’ A,” she responded as we both watched the officer walk up to the car in our respective rear view mirrors.  I fumbled through the glove compartment for the insurance card and registration, noticing that the insurance card was expired.

“Where’s the new one?” I asked as the trooper approached my window, offering a bit of half-awake displeasure along with my inquiry.

“It’s in the trunk in my bag,” she responded as I rolled down the window.  I passed the items through the window to the young looking officer hoping that I wasn’t about to get hauled out of my seat and into the ditch because of my beard.  You never can tell with those bastards.  He declined to have us retrieve the updated insurance card out of the trunk, and asked my wife to join him in the squad car after a brief discussion over her rate of speed, a casual admission, and a half-ass apology.

I watched her ass walk away from me in the mirror as she scurried along the shoulder to the prowler, then I put on my sunglasses and fell into my bucket seat, a bit anxious.  Even when you’re innocent, any police interaction can cause some distress.  Look at a cop the wrong way and you could find yourself on the wrong end of a body cavity search.  This time was no different.  I turned the radio back up and waited, heart pounding, for her return to our vehicle.  As I waited, I thought back to my own run in with the cops a few months back.  On that occasion, I was definitely innocent of any wrongdoing, but it didn’t matter.

I had been walking back from The Waiting Room Lounge to my home in the Benson neighborhood after a show when an Omaha Police car pulled up shining that fucking spotlight in my face.  I had been minding my own business, so I stopped to oblige the officers, hoping they were just being good public servants offering me a ride home.  That was obviously the beer thinking. 

“Where are you going?” one of them asked me.

“Home.  I’m walking home,” I replied through chattering teeth.  It was freezing.  I was a few beers in, but not publicly drunk by any means, just cold as hell.  Apparently the answer wasn’t good enough.  Suddenly both officers were out of the car and molesting me.  I was patted down, handcuffed, and my pockets were emptied.

“What the hell is going on?” I asked, a bit miffed.

“We are on the lookout for a white male in a black jacket who was involved in a knife attack,” one of the officers abruptly responded, “Do you have a knife?”

“Your hand is in my pocket, do you see a knife?” I responded, the beer and my innocence allowing my mouth to say things my brain probably didn’t want it to. “I was at The Waiting Room and am merely walking home officers,” I added.  I had never been in handcuffs before, and I definitely wasn’t enjoying it.

“We’re going to put you in the back of the car while we figure this all out,” the officer said, shoving me into the back of the squad car as he handed the other officer my wallet.  I watched the second officer run my information through the computer as the other kept chirping back and forth through his radio outside of the car. 

“White male with a black jacket, huh?” I asked, not expecting an answer.  “Do you think I’m the only white guy with a black jacket in Omaha tonight?” I continued, my frustration mounting, “Did they say anything about a beard?”  After a few minutes of research, a short back and forth on the radio, and more of my annoying commentary from the back seat, they seemed to start to figure out that they had the wrong guy.  The officer outside the car opened the door and pulled me out.  He uncuffed me and handed me my wallet.  I started to walk home again towards the pedestrian bridge when they got out of the squad car again and chased me down.  “What the hell is going on now?” I asked, more pissed than before.

“You’re coming with us,” the officer with the biggest attitude said as he pushed me back into the back of the car sans handcuffs this time.  I started to run my mouth like my drunk brother at a baseball game as they drove me back across town almost all the way back to where I had begun my late winter walk.

“If I did it, would I just be walking down main street nonchalantly?  Did the guy have a beard? Where are you taking me?” I continued, firing questions faster than they could have fired their sidearms. We drove almost a mile and pulled in behind another squad car and a few people milling about in an alley near the club.  They opened the back door and put me on display for their apparent victim.

“Is this the guy?” the officer riding shotgun asked.

“No way.  The guy was a lot taller and didn’t have a beard,” he responded.  Go figure, I thought, but surprisingly kept my mouth shut until they instructed me to exit the vehicle and be on my way.

“You’re not even going to drive me home or back to where you picked me up?” I inquired, not exactly enthused to be heading back into the frigid air to retrace my entire walk again.

“Get the fuck out of here, we have an armed assailant to track down,” Captain Asshole shot back.

“Good luck smokey,” I muddled under my breath as I walked out of the alley, “you wasted all your time harassing me.”  That dude was long gone while they profiled me based on a beard and a black jacket.  I started my cold journey home once again.

I shivered a bit just thinking about it, as I watched Julie and the Iowa trooper in the squad car in my mirror, trying to hide my beard and not make any sudden movements.  I didn’t want to end up in the backseat again.  I rolled down the window and rested my arm on the car door, adjusting the side mirror for a better view into the police car.  Twenty fucking miles away from home, I thought.  This was not helping my hangover.  I closed my eyes and continued to wait.

This side of the highway snafu was a shitty ending to what was a pretty damn fabulous weekend.  We had just spent the night in Kansas City, without Jack, seeing Pearl Jam and Band of Horses and drinking strong, hoppy beers chased with some arena Miller Lite.  We enjoyed a sunny drive from Omaha without worrying about a kid in the backseat or a whining dog.  We ate a meal of black pepper salami with Irish Whiskey cheddar cheese, soft pretzels, and gourmet tater tots.  We met some fellow Pearl Jam fanatics, rocked out for three plus hours, wandered the streets of Kansas City, and even finished things off with some drunken hotel room sex.  We felt childless for a sweet twenty four hours.  It was just like old times.  We needed it.  But even before our excursion, things were feeling pretty damn good: pretty damn normal. 

The weekend had started with our celebration of Pizza Night in America.  We joined a crew of my wife’s fellow young professors and friends at our favorite Friday night stop, the Pizza Shoppe.  Jack crawled around the place sucking up every last bit of attention from our fellow patrons, before eating his very first slice of cheese pizza.  Talk about a rite of passage!  There’s nothing that says “I’m an American” more than devouring that first slice of pizza on a Friday night.  I watched him explore each portion with his hands and mouth having to almost hold back a tear.  Just a few months back, this moment seemed like an eternity away.  Now, there I was taking in every second of my son enjoying something that I held so dear to my own heart. He was now old enough to be a real part of our Friday night pizza tradition.  I was so proud.  He had pizza sauce everywhere and a full mouth.

My pizza night revelation was only the beginning of a trend towards normalcy that I would go on to slowly uncover throughout the remainder of the weekend.  On Saturday, Jack attended his first ever Kentucky Derby cookout.  It was here that he finally unveiled his clapping ability, his new found hide and seek ability, and some hands free standing.  He also found himself amidst his own derby race in the backyard as he chased five dogs on his hands and knees from deck to lawn to deck again, picking up his first batch of splinters on his bare feet and ending up completely covered in the juice of strawberries he discovered on the patio table.  He encored by eating his first batch of grilled whole vegetables between bouts of clapping for his Uncle’s Derby horse pick, Super Saver, on the infamous Dr. Sanchez’s new flat screen TV.  All the while, my wife and I got to kick back and actually enjoy a beautiful Saturday afternoon barbecue with some good friends and good beer while our eleven month old amused himself and others just like one of the gang.

Later that night, after a second late bedtime in a row for Jack, my wife and I sat on our own back deck listening to music and spying on the teenage neighbor and his girlfriend sprawled out on a blanket in their backyard next door.  We reminisced about doing the same thing over a decade ago, falling in love all over again as we shared stories of our early moments together, our almost breakups, and the unbelievable reality that we were now here in Omaha, with an almost-one-year-old child sleeping soundly inside.

We gazed at the stars, reflecting back on life before our marriage, our dog, and our child.  Alone amongst the newly blossoming trees and the familiar songs on the stereo, we were transported back there, in my parent’s backyard in Chicago, lying on a blanket under the late Spring night sky.  It was there and then that we both realized we were in love.  Over twelve years later, it was comforting to know that we could easily manage to find that moment again almost five hundred miles away and toward the end of a hard year of learning how to live as parents.  For a few minutes, it was as if it were just the two of us again: no dirty diapers, no middle of the night crying, no drool, no car seats, no one depending on us but each other.  It felt good to be back there, just as it felt good to be away for a day and night in Kansas City forty eight hours later.

Sure, we sat there knowing full well that we could never really go back to those days, but I don’t think either of us really want to anyways.  Our new reality is that we did have a sleeping child inside, a child that amazes us by the day, reminds us constantly of who we used to be, and makes us fall in love with him and each other over and over again.  And, one that, no doubt, would wake us up earlier than we wanted to the next morning.  We have a completely different life, but we’re settling into it.  Jack is close to that first birthday now and with that, things are starting to feel normal again.  It’s not the same normal, but it’s something.  I guess it’s our new normal, and we’re getting closer to finding it by the day. 

I was shaken out of my own head by the sound of a car door slam and glanced up to notice Julie finally emerge from the passenger seat of the squad car and head back to our car thankfully, alone.  She relayed to me her last twenty minutes with Johnny Law and showed me not only her speeding ticket, but a warning for expired insurance, a writeup for supposedly illegal window tinting on our windshield, and an order to have it removed in five days or face further penalty from an Iowa government obviously in need of some funds and looking for Nebraska residents to provide them.

“Well Speed Racer, I hope you’ve learned your lesson,” I joked, knowing it probably wouldn’t go over too well.  She took it in stride, gave me the bird, and attempted to rejoin the traffic to finish the last twenty miles of our journey.  “I wonder how many other new parents can say they’ve both been in police custody in squad cars before their kid’s first birthday,” I added, trying to cushion the blow of the last twenty minutes.  She allowed herself a slight chuckle, then set her cruise control for the speed limit and turned up NPR on the car radio.  We were like a boring version of Bonnie and Clyde or Mickey and Mallory from Natural Born Killers: outlaw parents, extremely tired, slightly hungover, and cursing “the man,” on our way to pick the kid up from the babysitter’s.

Role Reversal: I Get No Respect!

 “What about me, Dudicle?” I asked my eleven month old as he balled his eyes out, staring longingly at the empty stairwell where my wife once stood.  She left for work, and I was left with what I’m always left with at this time of day: tears and an overwhelming urge to quote the late, great, Rodney Dangerfield.  Yes indeed, when it comes to my son, “I get no respect!”

Never mind the fact that I have been nothing if not a humble servant to his majesty for almost a year.  Never mind all of the shit explosions I’ve cleaned up.  Never mind all of the clothes he’s ruined with his toxic drool and puke exorcisms.  Never mind the daily dance parties.  Never mind the songs I have to make up on the spot.  Never mind the hours spent teaching him how to crawl, walk, and bang on stuff.  Never mind the constant task of cleaning up Cheerios out of every nook, cranny, and crevice.  Never mind the books read, meals fed, and less time in my own bed.  He doesn’t care.  He only cares about his mother.  To say I get taken for granted is being polite. I’m merely the opening act, while she shows up late, skips the encore, and always keeps ’em wanting more.  Yes, she’s Axl Rose circa 1989 and I might as well be an undocumented nanny.   

You should see his face light up when she gets home from work.  He can’t get to her soon enough.  He’ll force himself out of my grasp and sprint across the house climbing over couches, hurdling obstacles, and squealing with delight.  No, he doesn’t walk yet, but he sure runs to her at the end of the day.  Days that I’ve spent dealing with his mood swings, the failed naps, the inhumane diaper loads, the one-sided food fights, the constant cat and mouse games, and of course, the crying.  Days all said and done by the time my wife comes home to all smiles and fireworks and the beloved noises he makes when he’s so excited he can’t control himself.  Even the dog thinks he goes a little overboard.  She can’t even compete.  So we retire to a game of feel sorry for ourselves fetch while the mother-son love and laughter-fest continues in the living room.  Then he goes to bed.

When my wife had to split town for two weeks to deal with a death in the family, I held down the fort, nursing him through a cold and the emergence of two new teeth.  Waking him up, putting him to bed, personally entertaining him 24/7.  When she returned, his face lit up like I’ve never seen.  Daddy who?  I was immediately forgotten.  However, when we both took a few days off to play tourist in Chicago, my return was met with utter indifference.  He couldn’t have cared less.  I was a bit let down, I must admit. 

To make matters worse, one day he decided to break his silence with his first real word used in the proper context, “Momma.”  He said it as he climbed up her legs in the kitchen the other day.  It was crystal clear and deliberate, unlike the random collection of syllables tossed out at me on a daily basis.  Now, I know it’s not a contest.  My wife and I are a team.  I know that she knows all I do for him.  I know that he doesn’t really take me for granted, no matter how it looks.  But, I will admit that it stung just a little bit underneath the joy of hearing him finally grasp some aspect of the English language.  For all I do for that little fucker, it’s a bit of a let down to know that she is now “Momma” and I am still “chopped liver.” 

“I figured that would happen,” my wife told me later that evening in reference to the “Momma” incident, stifling her desire to flaunt.  “Studies show that most of the time ‘Daddy’ or some form of it is usually the first word kids say because they hear their mothers saying it while the dad’s at work and especially when he comes home,” she continued, trying to console me with her scholarly wisdom, “So you shouldn’t be surprised or feel bad about it.”  It seems that the traditional gender roles have been reversed. I guess it’s official: I have become Mr. Mom.

“‘220-221, whatever it takes,'” I replied, then sulked into the couch with the dog.

The primary “stay at home” caregiver typically gets all of the work but none of the credit.  Yes, that’s a mild exaggeration, and there are countless perks that I have discovered in the past eight months.  However, it can be a bit disheartening sometimes.  Other times, even if just for a second, you wonder why you put in the effort at all.  You spend hours dealing with the trials of a crabby kid and end up handing off a bundle of joy to the working parent when they get home.  Then the bundle has the nerve to not even look back.  I know moms…welcome to your world.  I realize that I’m new here, bare with me. I feel your pain.

At least those of us on this end of things have our expertise to rely on. It’s nice to have my wife defer to me on issues related to my son.  The questions come from all angles.  When do you do this?  What does he eat then? Does he get a bottle now? When should I put him down for a nap?  I used to be clueless, now I’m the go to guy.  When I’m not around, sometimes the well oiled machine that is our household starts to derail.  I’ll come home to dirty bottles, empty formula containers, no baby food in the fridge, overflowing diaper pails, a frustrated mom, and a cranky baby. It’s nice to swoop in and be the hero.  At least those of us in the same house slippers can fall back on that and savor a bit of consolation. Some things are better left to the experts, I suppose, and we are the experts. 

I still, however, have nothing but love for the parents that go off to work on a daily basis.  The parents that allow us to stay home and experience the day to day growth of our children and explore options we may not be able to if we had to go to an outside job.  The parents that have to leave the home to spend time with people they may or may not want to, doing things they may or may not want to, instead of doing the things they do want to with those they love.  The parents that miss out on the little things.  The parents who deal with having to feel out of the loop, out of practice, and out of place in their own homes with their own families.  The parents who are truly making the biggest sacrifice a parent can make, for the good of the family.  Parents like my wife, who make the whole damn thing work.  They deserve those precious moments in the morning and evening, the tears when they leave, and the honor of being the recipient of the first words.  They deserve so much more.  It’s good to keep that in mind.  I try to.

Lucky for me, my wife and I seem to have it worked out so far.  We’ve figured out how to operate as a team, get past our misgivings, and make sure we let each other know how important the other is to the success of the whole.  It took us the entire year, but we’ve figured out how to blur those traditional gender lines and share the work and the wealth.  She even had me speak to her Sociology of Gender class the other day.  The fact that there needs to be classes like that and that a discussion with me would be enlightening at all, speaks volumes as to where we are.  Talking with her students was eye opening, to say the least.  What I’m starting to learn is that in addition to the uphill task of rewriting the gender rules, if more people realize how much of an actual job staying at home and raising your child all day is, then we’ll really start to get somewhere as equals, partners, parents, families, and citizens.  It’s something “Stay at Home” moms have been trying to get people to understand ever since before the two income family became hip or necessary.

Unfortunately that won’t happen until more men join in on the experience and until outdated gender roles are finally recognized as such.  We’re getting there.  It’s something I’m more proud of doing each day.  It’s something I would highly recommend. I’m glad I’m able to set this example for my son.  I’m glad I’m taking part in trying to erase the lines between gender roles.  Perhaps the idea won’t seem so odd to the next generation of men being currently cared for by stay at home dads, single dads, and most importantly, empathetic dads.  Equality begins in the home.  But, it’s not going to happen until we as a society put more value into being an active parent in general, getting our priorities straight, and acknowledging that child care and the work that goes into being a stay at home caregiver (male or female) is a proper and noble profession, even if the child may not offer up that same respect.  But hey, that’s how it goes. Kids are selfish bastards.

Despite my slight jealousy, it’s still great to watch the two of them together at the end of the work day.  It’s one of my favorite things to do, and I cherish it everyday.  Today was no different.  I took in every second of my wife sitting on the back deck, my son, on her lap, eating Cheerios and peas on the hottest afternoon of the year so far in Omaha.  The first strong Spring sun, my son, my wife, and myself listening to The Hold Steady, contemplating breakfast for dinner, and waiting on the twister.  Then my wife ran inside to pee and Jack turned on the tear faucet, destroying the peace of the scene.  “What about me?” I asked him as he looked up at the door and I looked for the dog who was barking at a squirrel in the corner of the yard.  Go figure.  I get no respect!

(Photos courtesy of Christina Reinicke-Chicago)

Baby’s Day Out

There it was.  That oh so familiar whine emanating from the baby monitor.  I knew he would wake up.  It was a guarantee.  It took my eleven month old son a half hour to fall asleep for his afternoon nap and now, twenty minutes in, the perfect storm of noise decided to shit all over my afternoon.

It all started with a fucking motorcycle. I finally snagged some time to write and some asshole decided to pick up his daughter from the middle school across the street on a loud as hell crotch rocket.  “Go-fuckin figure,” I whispered to myself as I spun around on my green leather seventies chair, turning my attention from the makeshift desk in my attic room to the ruckus outside my window.  I don’t even know why I whispered.  My dog was barking her ass off downstairs at the douche-bag who was apparently on my front lawn doing donuts.  The nap was sabotaged no matter how loud I swore to myself.  I looked out the window to see that said douche-bag was in fact not on my front lawn, but in the middle of the road, blocking traffic from both directions.  I watched him hand his daughter an extra helmet.  She put the helmet on and attempted to climb onto the back of the bike. 

“Other side!” he yelled as loud as he could over the noise of the bike and the muffle of his teal motorcycle helmet as he waved his daughter to the street side of the bike to board.  She scurried around and awkwardly climbed onto the back of the seat, putting her hands on her father’s shoulders. “Is your helmet on right?” he yelled, unbelievably louder than before, “Hang on!” She put her arms around his neck.  “No, not there! Hang on down here!” She lowered her embrace to underneath his armpits and the bike quickly growled away.  The dog was still barking like a lunatic downstairs.  

I never before had wanted to put a dog down so badly.  I thought about going to the vet’s house next door and asking.  I sat back down in my chair disgusted at the sudden turn of events, clicked the play button on iTunes, and started up the Steve Dahl podcast I had been listening to before Wild Hog disrupted the peace of my afternoon.  Then I waited.  Two seconds later I heard Jack in the baby monitor from his room downstairs.  I heard the dog sprinting up the stairs and gave her my most evil possible glare as I stood up from in front of the computer and headed downstairs.  If there’s one thing I’ve learned on this parenting trip that keeps coming back to me it’s that you can’t have any expectations once you have a kid.  You can barely have free time.  

Luckily the hard time I’ve put in this first year as a “Stay at Home” Dad has helped me to master the basics of this childcare thing so far, because it’s starting to get a bit more complicated.  Now when he naps, I feel like I need to save the world.  I feel like I have to take advantage of every second.  When he’s awake, those opportunities are few.  He’s is constantly moving.  He is a wind up toy.  You set him on the ground and he’s off until he crashes into something.  These days, having a nap sabotaged by a dog and a douche-bag is as heartbreaking as your first girlfriend telling you you have a small penis.  It’s like clouds and rain on the 4th of July.  Shitty.

But, you have to persevere.  Letting yourself get upset for too long fixes nothing.  It’s really hard to be a good parent when you are in a bad mood.  So, you regroup, and you let the animal out of its cage so you can do it all over again.  Out of the crib and into the fire as the chase continues.  Like I said, he never stops moving.  He’s crawling, climbing, drooling, exploring, and sticking things into his mouth.  Who knows what he’s doing when I turn my back?  He may be stopping crime.  I feel like I’m trapped inside the movie Baby’s Day Out. I’ve only ever seen the previews, but I imagine it’s similar. It has started to take some creativity just to keep up with him; creativity and intelligence.  Luckily, I’m still a bit smarter than him.

My son is like Indiana Jones and Batman rolled into one, trapped inside the body of the Gerber baby.  While I, on the other hand, have been relegated to the role of Short Round and Alfred respectively.  I say this because of his sense of adventure and fearlessness and my blind loyalty and uncanny ability to assist him in getting in and out of trouble.  And let’s not forget his choice of interesting toys and his effortless way with women. 

Jack would run away from home if we let him.  However, this is not a reflection of our lack of providing a loving home and life for him but more a side effect of his curiosity and our desire to encourage it.  Turn your back on him and he’ll be halfway across the house and on another floor.  Set him in the front lawn and next thing you know you’ll look up from your well-read copy of Catcher in the Rye and see him examining the rocks in front of the neighbor’s front porch.  We set him on the front porch and he desires the driveway.  Set him on the driveway, and he heads straight for sidewalk.  Set him on the sidewalk, and he puts his head down and sprint-crawls to the end of the block.  I’ve had to start hanging out in the backyard for the fences.

“There he goes,” my wife said as she sipped her wine near the bird feeder in our backyard.  I looked on from the back deck and saw Jack, head down, scampering across the yard to the far corner a few inches from the fence.  He stopped, took a roundabout look to gain his new bearings, then proceeded to pick up every stick in his vicinity until he found the right one.  Then he swung the stick around for ten minutes, smiling a huge open mouthed smile when he noticed we were watching, but refusing to give up the distance between us.  I thought about our trip to the park the prior weekend and how he left us in his wake and crawled almost fifty yards towards some kids and a dog without looking back once.  

“He’s all about pushing boundaries,” I responded with a smile, “and he’s not afraid of grass.”  We shared a laugh as we watched Jack narrowly avoid a collision with our dog who was sprinting across the yard chasing squirrels from tree to telephone pole to fencepost to tree. Our friends’ daughter of the same age is currently afraid of grass.  Jack gravitates toward it.  He can’t get enough.  His face lights up when you open a door.  He drools like a junkie until you set him down in the sea of green.  He pulls at the blades of grass, sometimes attempting to eat them, and then he moves on and searches for rocks or dirt or dog poo.  I’m so glad he’s not afraid of grass, but it turns out he doesn’t seem to be afraid of much of anything.  Plus, with my ever present watching eye and quick reflexes, he probably feels invincible.  It’s not a good combination for my sanity.

The best part about his adventurousness is that he’s pretty open to going places and doing things.  The grocery store, Beertopia, restaurants, the park, art museums, the zoo: he’s game for all of them anytime and all the time.  We took him to his first baseball game just last week.  Figuring we’d test the waters with a minor league game before trying out the big leagues, we took him along to opening night of the final season of the Omaha Royals at Rosenblatt Stadium.  He split his time between watching the people in the seats behind him and crawling up and down the aisle playing with empty Miller High Life cans and discarded boxes of popcorn.  Though my mother would have probably gone nuts over the whole scene, if he hadn’t found some interest in the beer cans he may have just kept on going down the aisle and found his way into the bullpen to hang with the relievers.  Luckily, he’s easily distracted.  Unfortunately his attention span is smaller than his pinky toe.  He loses concentration between spoonfuls of dinner.  One second he’s starving, the next he’s chewing on the strap from his highchair. 

Until recently, the weather in Omaha has kept us mostly trapped inside.  Lately, this has been quite the test of both of our creativity and patience.  I’ve worked to become proficient in my distractions, and extremely liberal in what I’m willing to let him occupy his time doing.  Jack’s on board with these progressive ideas as well.  Brushing off the more traditional baby toys we’ve inherited or he’s gotten as gifts, Jack likes to erase the boundaries of what is and isn’t a toy.  For instance, he’ll push a large calculator around on our wooden floors for many minutes at a time.  He gets so much enjoyment from that, we’ve started to carry the calculator around in our diaper bag wherever we go.  I figure that’s not as weird as carrying around some of his other favorite toys of the moment like my belt, an old plastic roladex/recipe container, a metal bookend, or the small curtain rod that he loves to swing around like a lightsaber.  He is obsessed with all of them, which is fine with me as long as it keeps him occupied for a few seconds at a time so that I can eat, clean, shit, shower, write, or read something–even if I have to do it all at once.  Plus it keeps me from having to remove loose change from his mouth every ten minutes.  I don’t know what the deal is, but he finds pennies everywhere; pennies I don’t even notice.  My mantra for the past week has been “money is not for eating.”  I’ve even turned it into a song.  Hey, whatever it takes. And it often takes Cheerios.

What I have noticed as we inch ever closer to the end of my first year as a dad, is that the older they get, the easier it becomes to figure them out and the harder it becomes to keep up with them.  Eventually you do figure out the handful of real needs.  You figure out the moods.  You learn the art of distraction.  You learn new tricks.  You realize that they can be easily entertained as well as motivated.  You realize that babies fall for every trick in the book.  Lucky for us they do, because otherwise we’d totally be fucked.

In the end, we got past the missed nap and made it to Mom’s return from work relatively unscathed, despite the dog, the douche-bag, the lost nap, and the Energizer baby.  Now more than ever, when my wife comes home from work it’s a daily celebration.  We’re both excited to see her after the rat race of our day and it’s always nice to pass the baton to someone else for the anchor leg of the Jack relay.  Today’s celebration erupted into an impromptu dance party to the new album from LCD Soundsystem, as we tried to teach Jack to clap.  He still refused.  For a kid so willing to explore the world, he’s extremely unwilling to clap.  Perhaps little things like that are beneath him?  Perhaps he’s got more important things to discover?  Perhaps he’s just waiting for his first White Sox game? 

As we danced around our kitchen table, I thought back to that first baseball game a week ago and the possibility of taking him to that first White Sox game sometime this season.  I thought about how happy I was that it was finally baseball season.  It was finally Spring.  The remedy for our cabin fever couldn’t have come soon enough.  Jack had spent the entire winter inspecting every inch of our home, and now it was easy to see that he was ready to find that next frontier.  I thought about all that will probably happen in Jack’s life over the course of this baseball season.  Sure, a White Sox game was almost a given.  But, he will most likely reach several other first milestones over the course of 162 games: his first birthday, his first step, his first word, his first swim, and maybe even his first clap to cheer on the Sox in his first World Series?  It’s going to be one hell of a season.  We’re ready.  Jack’s ready.  Let’s play ball.

My advice: Yes, you may be touching it too much.

“How did you even know what to do?” a friend asked me as he reached past me to grab his beer from the bartender.  I was at a friend’s daughter’s first birthday party.  It was a big shindig at a public golf course clubhouse.  The few people that I knew were huddled around the bar watching the Final Four games, talking about the upcoming White Sox season, and drinking Miller Lites from the open bar. The birthday girl was nowhere in sight, not that it mattered anyways.  First birthday parties are pretty much for the enjoyment of adults anyways.  As parents, you make sure your guests get drunk, watch your kid shove cake in their face, and celebrate the fact that you made it an entire year without fucking up and killing your kid. It’s an American tradition.     

“Good luck,” I responded.  The priceless look on my friend’s face told me I had answered correctly.  I ordered a High Life from the bartender and watched as the entire group of guys shifted their gaze from the game to her tight black stretch pants.  An old guy that looked like Walter Mathau squeezed past me on his way outside for a smoke break, trying to avoid the impending Easter egg hunt that was about to occur near the putting green.

“Funny.  No big advice from the Omaha Dad?” he continued. I ignored the sarcasm and thought it about it for a minute as I watched a middle aged weirdo in suspenders make mediocre balloon animals.

“When it comes down to it, the only advice I could give you is this: don’t shake your baby no matter how much you want to,” I said.  He thought I was joking.  I couldn’t have been more serious.  It really is the best advice.  There are times, especially early on, when you want to shake your baby.  This is the first test you must pass.  Cross that line, and we find out really quick who is up for this parenting thing and who isn’t.  It seems pretty simple, but there’s a reason we have something called “shaken baby syndrome.”  It happens.  “Get past that urge, and you’ll be fine,” I added, still not sure if he was taking me seriously.  The childless can be so naive.

I looked at the time on my phone and intuitively scanned the room for the diaper bag.  I noticed it on a bar stool and rummaged through it for a bottle and some formula right as my wife inquired about the time.  “Yep, I’m making him a bottle right now,” I answered, heading off her question as I walked around the corner to the bathroom.  My mom stopped me halfway.

“Do you want me to get some bottled water from the bar?” she asked, a look of fear in her eye at the prospect of me getting water from the men’s restroom.

“I’ll be fine,” I quipped as I pushed open the door and slid inside.  I laughed out loud in the empty men’s room as I thought about Mom’s water suggestion.  A formula bottle made of tap water wouldn’t kill the kid.  Besides, Jack prefers his bottles warm and immediate, and you can be sure as hell my mom poured that same Lake Michigan tap water down my throat for all of my formative years. It’s funny how much pickier my parents are with my son.  They treat him like baby Jesus. 

I left the men’s room and located the “blessed one” in the arms of my sister.  I grabbed him from her and set him down on the floor to groans from both my sister and mother.  I leaned him up against his diaper bag next to the gift table and let him chug his bottle as much of the room looked on, some snapping pictures, as Jack sat oblivious to anything but the sweet fake boob juice flowing down his throat.  My mom wasn’t pleased, but let it go for the time being.  Heaven forbid the “Christ child” touches the floor.  She quickly scooped him up as soon as he finished the last drop and took him home to put him to bed.

Without the mini-me responsibility, I went back to the bar to wait for the kid-cake comedy fiasco, stepping on a balloon puppy as my brother in law asked me about my weight loss regimen.  “It doesn’t include many of these,” I said as I ordered another beer from the bar.  The draft came back flat so I waited around for the bartender to return and traded it in for a High Life bottle that I placed in my ever present beer coozie after instinctively retrieving it from my back pocket.  My brother in law always gets a kick out of that.

“Hey kids, let’s find the Easter eggs hidden in my pants,” interrupted my younger brother, mocking the suspender guy who was now dressed in an Easter Bunny costume and posing for pictures with the remaining children who were up way past any sensible bedtime.  I noticed that the birthday girl was less than enthused, which was no surprise since she hadn’t even been allowed to paint her face with chocolate cake and frosting yet and we had been here for four hours already.  I was running out of patience for the entire scene, and believe it or not, despite being free, I was pretty much over drinking beer for the time being.  

I had just spent three and a half glorious beer filled childless days  in downtown Chicago while my wife attended a Sociology conference, and now I felt like a kid on the last day of summer vacation.  After ten and a half months, my first three and a half day respite from my fatherly duties was a godsend.  Unfortunately and predictably, it had gone by too fast, and now I was one day away from getting back on the Daddy horse and riding seven hours back to Omaha.  It was no longer time to celebrate, I had to start getting back into the full-time “Daddy” mode frame of mind.  Knowing full well that I’d get to witness my own child covered in cake in less that two months, I decided not to wait any longer, left the childless ones at the bar and bummed a ride to my parent’s place.
I lay in bed that night savoring the last few minutes of my Spring Break from daddy day care.  I thought about the past few days and how simultaneously wonderful and odd it was to be relieved of my child for seventy-two hours.  I thought about the past ten and a half months, what I had learned, and how different my life now was for better or worse.  I came to the conclusion that it was mostly better, especially now, as we approached my own son’s first birthday.  Then I thought about the question my friend asked me earlier: “How did you even know what to do?”

The truth is, I didn’t.  I stand by the advice that I had given him about the baby shaking, but that’s obviously only part of the puzzle.  Sure, I do have a ton of advice, but does it really matter? Children are like the world’s hardest Rubik’s Cube that you have to try and solve blindfolded before it explodes in your face.  As soon as the O.R. nurse handed me my bloody, gooey, tear inducing bundle of joy, it was go time. She had a smile on her face, but behind it was the reality of it all that said, “Good luck, don’t fuck up.”  That’s pretty much all you get.  I couldn’t believe that they just send you home with your new baby and that’s that.  There are no instructions.  There is no owner’s manual.  There are no training wheels or batting practice.

My friend Dan and I began fatherhood nine days apart, yet our children couldn’t be more different.  During many of our discussions about parenthood and parenting advice, he’s tossed around the idea of writing our own parenting advice book.  We settled on the title, “Something up with your kid? Here are one million things you can try that may or may not work for you.”  That pretty much sums up parental advice as far as I’m concerned.   It can often be a game of throwing everything at the wall and praying your ass off that something sticks.  An idea lottery where you’re hoping that your number gets called just once so you can sleep.

Despite this, or maybe because of it, there is no shortage of good or bad “help” available online, in magazines, in books, on television, and often among friends and family. Some of this is great.  Sometimes you don’t know where to start.  Sometimes you need a hint to point you in the right direction.  Sometimes it’s nice to know you are not alone.  Sometimes you just want some reassurances that what you are experiencing or feeling is normal.  The only problem is, there is no “normal.”  There is no “right way.”  No two babies are the same, yet they are all the same.  It can get pretty damn confusing sometimes.

There’s a reason that there’s a huge market for baby blogs and baby books and baby magazines.  We are all just trying to not fuck up the whole thing.  We think that we can’t figure it out on our own in our own way. For some parents, it can be downright overwhelming.  They are so afraid of doing something wrong.  They are afraid to let their children figure things out, explore their environment, or just plain live.  They try to avoid all the dirt, all the germs, and often, all the fun. They fear the stupid shit and ignore the problems later in life when it’s really time to worry.  I get it, but I see the absurdity in many of these sterile, “by the book” parents, and I’m striving to do it our way.  Though, I sometimes do need a little help.

I will admit I’ve spent some time perusing online message boards myself, especially in the early days. Hell, the internet in general has done wonders for parenting in my opinion.You feel less alone in the sometimes solitary world of parenthood. Social networking online can be a savior to the stay at home caregiver stuck inside all winter with a child too young to communicate.  You don’t feel so out of touch.  Plus, when you need that little bit of help, it’s often just a few clicks away.

There’s something comforting in knowing that what you are experiencing with your baby is not new or unique.  It gives you a slight sense of relief when you realize that there are hundreds of other people dealing with the same issues that you are.  You feel like you are part of a club.  It also helps to get a nice variety of “solutions” from people who have already gone through what you have, whether the circumstance is exactly similar or not.  It gives you some other things to try.  It hopefully keeps you from shaking your baby.

My wife and I spent a good couple of months in agony over Jack’s lack of desire to sleep or stay asleep.  It was an underlying issue that was affecting every aspect of our lives. I’d go online daily looking for books, websites, or other afflicted parents looking for answers.  In the end, I was referred to a book about the sleep issues we were dealing with from a good old friend of mine after a discussion of the topic at my brother’s wedding.  I went on upon our return to Omaha and ordered it.  Then, at some point between the ordering of the book and its arrival, we pretty much solved our own problem through a combination of trial and error and heeding advice from multiple sources, including the comments on Amazon under the book listing.  When the book arrived, it only backed up what we had already figured out.  We never looked at it again.  Go figure.  Maybe I should write a book?

In fact, being the cocky ten month veteran of parenthood that I am, I’ll now sometimes find myself scoffing at many of the often hilarious questions that new parents want answers to and are not afraid to ask online or in nationally published books or magazines.  You can feel the desperation in their posts online, and you realize how good you have it compared to some of the other rubes who can barely tread water in the baby pool.  People have examples for everything and questions about anything.  If you can dream it up, somebody’s kid probably did it somewhere and their online asking if it’s normal.  As always, there will also be someone else that can relate.  It’s a never ending source of laughs.

Take for instance the often helpful bestseller What to Expect: The First Year, a series that I like better than most in the genre because they present a good broad view of just that, what you might be able to expect from your new parenting adventure.  You can take or leave the advice offered, but again, it’s nice to at least have an idea of what’s coming your way and whether or not you should be concerned.  The questions they use are golden. One day I stumbled upon this gem of a question on page 397 regarding the eighth month: “When I’m diapering my baby, he sometimes gets an erection.  Am I handling his penis too much?”

Short answer: If you have to ask, then the answer is probably, “yes.”  I’ve spent ten months diapering and bathing my son and he’s never gotten an erection.  I’ve touched his penis more than any other penis aside from my own, and I still haven’t touched it enough to give him a baby erection.  Therefore, yes, you may be touching it too much.  Thanks for your question, and thanks for buying my book. The end. 

As a parent, it’s hard to not want all of the answers all of the time.   But sometimes a little trial and error is the only option. Sometimes you need to make mistakes to learn.  Sometimes you have to put the book down and just figure it out at your own pace.  It’s okay to seek advice.  It’s okay to ask for help.  However, it’s also okay to relax and let nature take its course without worrying about fucking up a little.  Parenting is about learning not only how to raise your children and keep them alive, but also about learning about yourself, and learning how to be a better person and parent.  Every day is an education.

Today it’s back to the internet to search for helpful hints on potty training before the age of one.  I noticed that Jack has finally discovered his penis, so I guess now is about as perfect a time as ever to see if he wants to learn how to use it outside of his diaper. Plus, we don’t want to have to buy the next size up in cloth diapers, which is quickly becoming a necessity.  So, as has been the case for the last ten months of my life, I’m open to any and all advice from everywhere. And here’s hoping I won’t have to touch it too much.

Home Alone Hero 2: The Born Identity

“Are you ready for the biggest of all surprises, Dudicle?” I asked my ten month old son as I walked into his room after his nap.  We were on day twelve of being home alone together without my wife.  She would be arriving later that afternoon and it was sure to blow that baby brain of his.  I couldn’t wait to see the look on his face.  “It will be the best thing to happen to you since you’ve been born.  Mark my words, Jackie boy,” I continued, as I opened his drapes to unveil the second of two sunny Omaha afternoons in a row, soaking it in along with the partially pacifier obstructed smile he was giving me. 

We had done it.  My wife had left abruptly when news that Momma Rita had taken a turn for the worse came in, but neither of us had expected her trip to last so long.  It was getting to the point where we were all aching for a reunion, and now it was finally in sight.  Plus, it was sunny.  Until the prior afternoon, Omaha hadn’t seen a sunny day since she left town.  I told her this during one of our many Skype conversations. 

“Really?” she asked, thinking I was saying something sweet.

“Really.  And though it sounds romantic and shit, it’s just the facts,” I replied as I tossed her a grin.  I needed to see the sun almost as much as I needed to see my wife in the flesh.  The sun showed up first, making for a perfect St. Patty’s day afternoon spent inventing the Black and Green (1/2 Guinness and 1/2 hoppy American IPA) with the infamous Dr. Sanchez.  He would later send out blank text messages while being stuck in his own bathtub, while I pushed the limits of the warmth of the front porch watching the first brilliant sunset in weeks give way to a moon with a beard.  Now, the sun was back again, and my wife would follow in a few hours.

“Yes meat paws, there will be much rejoicing,” I said to Jackie as I changed his diaper, “maybe there will also be tacos, and maybe if Daddy is lucky, there will also be some sex.”   The last “maybe” was a big one, I thought, as I turned up the stereo and brought Jack out onto the front porch to get introduced to Thin Lizzy’s Jailbreak while waiting for the biggest surprise of his little life.  Sex or no sex, she was finally coming back and we were ready for her. She was coming home to better men.

Twelve days of twenty-four hour mostly unaided child responsibility is a bit like military boot camp for parents.  It’s also a little bit like being the manager of Chuck E. Cheese except that you can’t leave and you have to sleep on top of a ski-ball lane.  Imagine being one of those ER doctors on call and at work for twelve straight days.  At the worst moments, that’s what this was like.  Luckily, the worst moments were few. After coming out the other side mostly unscathed and better for it, I would recommend it to everyone. Though, be warned, it’s not for everyone.

If I wasn’t convinced that I could do this Dad thing already, the last twelve days solidified it.  When I first became a father, I had no fucking idea what I supposed to do.  After a couple of months of daddy daycare, teamwork, trial and error, and a father-son road trip, I was starting to feel confident in my abilities. I was proud of my parenting repertoire going into the experience, but now I felt like the Jason Bourne of fatherhood, and not just because we share the same first name.  It was as if I had gone through rigorous montage training right out of a Hollywood blockbuster action movie, Kenny Loggins soundtrack and everything, and come out of it with powers I didn’t even realize I had.  I was Bridget Fonda’s character in Point of No Return, with a beer belly and a beard instead of a gun and tight black dress.  I was a full-fledged-multi-tasking parenting Jedi.

For one thing, I finally mastered how to put up and take down the cheap wooden baby gate.  However, having now also mastered the art of hopping over it, it doesn’t really matter.  We’re talking boy in one arm, full hot steaming coffee cup in one hand, cold bowl of cereal and strawberries in the other, full baby bottle in the pocket of my AC/DC pajama pants, and a CD or DVD in my mouth, over a gate and up and down stairs with grace, speed, style, and not a drop spilled or baby dropped.  I couldn’t have done that a week before. In fact, I failed miserably on a few prior attempts over the gate resulting in coffee being splattered on carpet and wall alike, me bruising my tailbone as I slid down a flight of steps while Jack squealed in delight from the other side of the gate, and a Cheerios free for all with boy and dog scurrying for the spoils while I was left covered in orange juice and crying over spilled milk.  Now, however, I’m some crazy combination of Apollo Ohno and Johnny Weir, but harrier. I’m 007 with baby toys.

I battled through a cold, a fever, teething, explosive diarrhea, and a junkie-like desire to climb stairs and handled them all on top of every single diaper, feeding, laundry load, nap time, bath time, rock-a-bye, and bottle washing.  I did all of that, stayed up way too late unwinding, and got up way too early to do it all again the next day; for ten consecutive days. Then I spent two days cleaning the house for a day and a half visit from my parents.  I was running around the house like Kevin McAllister, but this time I was home alone getting the house set up for The Captain and Tennille instead of the “wet bandits.”  On top of that, I was stuck with the little kid that pees the bed.  I filled the house with groceries after an eleventh hour shopping trip spent catching Jack as he tried to climb out of the shopping cart, I picked up all his toys, cleaned the bathrooms, swept the floors, constructed a guest bed, and vacuumed the carpets until my vacuum cleaner wouldn’t suck anymore.  Seriously.  I have the worst luck with vacuum cleaners.  I cursed at it until it cried.  I actually got pissed at a vacuum cleaner.  Boy how my life has changed!  But hey, it was the only hiccup in what would have probably been some of my best housekeeping work ever.

Upon Grandma and Grandpa’s arrival I breathed a small sigh of relief.  I opened the door and handed over my son.  He took the brunt of it.  A chorus of “I’m going to get you” exploded into his unsuspecting face.  He looked like he was about to freak out.  I laughed on the inside and let them have their fun, giving Jack a nod of assurance.  It didn’t take him long to warm up to them again, and it took even less time for me to turn over the reigns for a few minutes.  Reinforcements had come, and I was going to take advantage.  Unfortunately, they were a bit rusty, and before too long my new found ninja-dad skills were on full display to counteract the Grandparents’ nap sabotage and senior moment forgotten diaper bags.  Yes, I was now a ninja.  A ninja in need of a vacation and many many beers.

What I received, however, was even better.  First, my mom kept complimenting me on my parenting and my son.  For someone so proficient in the field, I was honored.  Then, in a random moment sitting in the basement watching TV with my Dad, he said to me in a voice and tone he doesn’t often use, “You’re doing a great job with your son.  Probably better than what I would have been able to do.  I want you to know how proud I am of you.”  I never had to use so much effort to hold back tears.  Coming from someone who uses heart to heart talks sparingly, it made every single second of sacrifice worth it.  I had started the week not sure if I or any Dad deserved the compliments I was receiving from strangers for just being an involved parent, and now, at the end of what was a sometimes trying, and sometimes lonely twelve days without my wife, I was honored with a compliment that meant more to me than anything.  It’s been quite the twelve days for this home alone hero, and I wasn’t the only one who had changed.

Jack was going through some growth and discovery of his own.  For one, he would look slightly different when my wife finally got to see him.  After a few slightly miserable days of his pain and my solitary agony, he now had two upper teeth to match the two on the bottom. These two were bigger though, straight from his mother’s side of the family, with the even bigger patented gap between them.  It was our biggest fear.  The one familial genetic abnormality that we both hoped he would escape had forced its way through his virgin gums.  I texted my wife and gave her hell as Jack bit my thigh from underneath the kitchen table.  “Back away you hideous midget!” I yelled, as a slimy stream of drool stretched from his mouth to the rug under the table.  Four teeth down and sixteen more to go, I thought, as I snatched him up from between the table legs and gave him a bear hug.   

Aside from sprouting new mouth ornaments, the final melting of all of the Omaha snow had allowed Jack to step outside of his comfort zone and survey the outside world for longer than a trip from the porch to the car and back again.  He crawled around two different front yards, sat and rolled around in the grass, swung some sticks, sucked on rocks, chased a ball down a hill, and tried to eat tree bark, all in twenty four hours.  He was now a full fledged explorer with four teeth and a confident look in his eye, but perhaps the most exciting transformation was that he had actually started listening.

I had been working for weeks on keeping him away from the dog’s food and water dish.  I did not want to live in a world where I had to put the dog dishes on top of the refrigerator, and I know my dog was in full agreement.  I gave her a knowing look and decided to kick up the discipline a bit.  It didn’t take long.  After a single afternoon of my “no’s” being met with dissatisfied pouting and crying, the next morning he actually listened to me.  He stopped, looked at me, and crawled away from the dog bowls.  He hasn’t touched them since.  My dog was relieved.  I was awestruck.  I was proud.  I was so hard core.  I even thought for a second about attempting to potty train him next.  Then I thought about something else. 

Sitting on my front porch swing as we waited for the white Hyundai to roll down Bedford Ave. and into the driveway, I thought back to the first few days of this new job of mine; this experiment.  I thought about my first few days in Omaha as a naive “Stay At Home” Dad with a three month old and my foolish early attempts at trying to take the boy and the dog on a run through the park.  Then, I thought about the past twelve days and more specifically, the prior couple of hours.  Just that morning, I had loaded up both boy and dog into the car, stroller and leash in tow, and drove to Benson Park to attempt what I had failed at months ago, before the weeks and weeks of snow and experience piled onto my existence.

After my first botched attempt at a run through the park with the dynamic duo almost 8 months ago, I wrote, “That’s right, this Daddy day care thing is going to be a piece of cake…a cake made of shit.”  It completely backfired in my face.  So much so, that I gave up the idea and did all my running alone on the treadmill until today.  Today, it was a breeze.  I Jason Bourned that run like a pro. I had actually gotten somewhere.  I had actually learned some important lessons.  I had come full circle.  I felt unflappable, unbreakable, and unstoppable. Training day is over, let the games begin, I thought as I bounced Jackie boy on my knee as we rocked back and forth on the porch swing. Yes, I’m ready for the next challenge.  When it comes I’ll roundhouse kick that son of bitch just like in the action movies, but first I need to hug my wife.