What We Talk About

January 17th, 2011

mags.jpgMy buddy Rick recently hipped me to his blog, Past His Prime In NYC. Like me, Rick moved to Manhattan in his early twenties. And like me, Rick is married, and a dad. And like me, his blog often explores the discrepancy between what was and what is.

His most recent post, “You Won’t Believe This Story,” recalls his Barry Levinson-hued, “Diner”-like youth. “Those were great days,” he writes, “full of laughter and excitement. Each of us hoping to live out and then share a truly classic tale. Any yarn that began with “You won’t believe this story…” was sure to have everyone on the edge of their seat.”

Now, he laments, “Everyone has a wife. And kids. And a mortgage. And back pain. And we sound every bit of our age.” And then Rock proffers his thesis: “Young, unattached folks do incredibly interesting things that make for great stories. Those of us with responsibility and commitments do that which is sensible, oftentimes dull, and rarely worthy of a re-telling.”

I appreciate Rick’s point. And I agree — with one, crucial caveat.

Maggie’s first movements — reaching for toys, rubbing her eyes, rolling over — were terse and jerky, as if her neurons were firing at near-random. As she’s grown, though, her movements are increasingly fluid, concerted, deliberate. I’m sure there’s some science behind all of it, but I’m not interested in science; for me, it’s metaphor.

My twenties and early-thirties were full of twitchy, rogue movement. It took practice, patterns and discernment, mistakes, insults and injuries, to gain even an iota of insight as to my direction.

My stories, then, were equally florid. Sure, I was out carousing every night, filling rooms with melody and discord, kissing at random, and hailing cabs at dawn. It made for good “Diner” fare, compelling “You Won’t Believe This Story…” stories. But it was meaningless misdirection, all sound and fury signifying nothing.

I don’t own a home. I don’t have a mortgage. (Though my back definitely aches.) Still, it seems to me that the most compelling component of any narrative is stakes. What matters? What are you fighting for? What’s to lose?

There are no greater stakes than family. No late-night, strobe-lit, a-list party can compete. No beer-soaked, pot-fueled, laughter-filled Friday comes close. No rock show beats Maggie playing xylophone for a stuffed-animal audience.

I miss those stories too, but I don’t need them anymore; they’re fiction.

Lessons Learned From Rocky I – Rocky III*

January 4th, 2011

magbray.jpgIt’s clear to me now that my expectations were wildly outsized.

Abbi, Maggie and I had ten days at The Kellers’ Brays Island home with all the trimmings: running, swimming, golf, fishing, big screen HD movies, and a fridge full of special-ordered Cisco Brewers Wales Tale Pale Ale.

Our Christmas Eve flight from LaGuardia to Charleston unspooled mostly-unceremoniously. When Maggie wasn’t sleeping, she was gazing out the window awestruck. It was actually pretty cool.

And when we landed, The Kellers we’re waiting, car seat at the ready. Maggie was asleep before we left the city limits, and stayed that way well into the Low Country.

Trouble didn’t begin to arise until Christmas morning. Of course, Maggie was the first to wake. Slowly her grandparents, aunts and uncles began trickling from their respective rooms. By the time everyone was ready to open gifts, Maggie was ready for a nap.

Now, Dear Reader, up til now, Maggie’s only been away from home a few nights. And she’s only slept in her crib at night. She takes morning and afternoon naps in her swing — the swing that was 1000 miles north of Brays Island, South Carolina.

And so it was some four hours into Christmas morning with the Keller, Family waiting in the living room below, that we endeavored to break Maggie of her swing habit, while — what the heck, go for broke — beginning sleep training (or COI, the process in which a baby learns to sooth itself through gradually diminished parental soothing).

For two hours we tried to get her down. Her screams echoed through the sparsely-furnished garage apartment like a wounded badger in a trap. It was heartbreaking.

After Christmas dinner, the same: Abbi and I alternated soothing Maggie through her hourly wake-up calls until — somewhere around 430 — Abbi popped a boob (her expression), tucked a pacifier in her mouth, and send her deep into dream time.

The rest of the week was the same: Maggie was unpredictable, inconsistent, and irritable (punctuated, of course, by adorable, incredible, and awesome). By and large, she refused to nap. On Tuesday evening, Abbi and I drove around Brays for an hour. On Wednesday afternoon, I sat perfectly still in an easy chair for forty-five minutes as she slept on my shoulder. Evening was worse, the baby monitor looming over our shoulder at all times, threatening to issue it tiny, distorted report at any moment. Which it did almost hourly. Abbi and I alternated running upstairs to soothe her, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for hours at a time. And nighttime was a nightmare, rocked from zombie-like sleep to settle our screaming, disoriented daughter.

By Thursday, when we’d scarcely left our cave-like apartment, it occurred to me that a vacation with an infant is less vacationy — a revelation I Tweeted. My colleague (and father of two) Jeff replied, “It isn’t a vacation at all with kids.”

Which is not to say that we were left to our own devices, or bereft of immensely joyful moments. The Kellers provided terrific daytime support, even affording Abbi and me a free afternoon for lunch, and an excursion to the massive live oak under which we were wed.

We relished Maggie’s first, wide-eyed Christmas morning, her awe-filled first swim, and dozens of tiny, inspiring moments in between (as a new parent, even feeding is a revelation). Maggie is growing at breakneck speeds. Every day brings something new — new sounds, movements and expressions — each one a revelation. And even in the middle of the night, in the deepest depths of exhaustion and despair, there is immense pleasure in the tiny, gentle sigh that comes with her finally giving in to sleep.

Still, it took until a long, sunny afternoon walk with Abbi and Maggie Friday afternoon for me to figure out that I need to readjust my expectations — all of my expectations. Maggie has permanently altered my life’s trajectory. She is the ultimate confirmation that it’s not about me. She is the ultimate expression of unconditional love. She is the ultimate manifestation of the lesson I seem to learn over and over again, that life is not measured in long stretches of pleasure, vacation, or bliss. It is a thing of increments, of tiny joys and fleeting pain.

And if she could teach me all that at seven months, I expect to be a genius by the time she’s seventeen.

God help me.

* This post’s title is derived from Cornershop’s epic 2004 single of the same name.