With My Eyes Closed
I think the worst part of my day is the time between when I get in bed and when I finally fall asleep. In part because the day never feels finished, and in part because I'm not ready for it to be tomorrow, when I'll have to go back to the office. And, in part, because where my mind will go when there's nothing to focus it can be unsettling--panicking about the fact that I'm going to die some day, maybe a long time from now, maybe soon, or maybe this will even be the last time I close my eyes, and what would that mean, and how many things have I left undone, and...
I do what I can to avoid giving myself the time to obsess, lying there with my eyes closed. I try to wait until I'm exhausted, knowing that I'm not doing myself any favors. Or I force my mind into stupid, repetitive patterns until I finally slip away. ("Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas... no, Arizona, Arkansas, California, start over, that's cheating.")
Sometimes, instead, it's flights of fancy. When Juliette isn't shifting positions and the kids are quiet and the dog isn't licking himself, I can convince myself that I'm back in my old college dorm room, or the room at my mom's old house, or the one at my dad's old house. I'll never be in those rooms again except in my head, at night with my eyes closed.
But lying there, when I'm in the right frame of mind, I can feel the presence of different walls just beyond where I can feel the sheets and blankets against my skin, and if I stretch out I'll feel the spot on the wall where my friend cracked the plaster with my head back when in middle school. Or if the window is open, the midnight breeze might have just stirred a basketball net and riffled the leaves of a tree full of beer cans.
Sometimes in my mind's ear I can hear the hollow "ca-chunk" of the door handle leading out of the dorm lounge. I can feel the prickle of dry oak leaves in the soles of my bare feet as I carry a load of laundry from from my mom's front door out and down to the laundry room. And it pains me that I will never, ever hear or feel those things again. Sometimes I wish I were still back there, and I wonder, lying there trying to fall asleep, if maybe I'll wake up to find myself with a pile of homework on the floor and class in ten minutes.
It's happened to me before that I've been in the middle of a dream and felt myself start to wake up, and desperately tried to hang on and keep the life I'm in from evaporating. I remember dreaming about a girl, once, a beautiful girl who I loved and who loved me, and as I started to rise back into the conscious world we both cried, knowing that it would be over soon--I felt numb for a while after I woke up.
Sometimes, when I'm lying with my eyes closed, I wonder--as I'm sure everyone does--whether dying would be like that, like just waking up into a different life. And it seems nice to think that way sometimes, to think that I wouldn't just stop and cease to be. Except that then all the joys of this life--tickling Jason and hearing him scream with laughter, the smile Juliette and I shared just after we'd been married, making faces with Eva, hell, even laughing at the sheer horrendousness of my dog's flatulence--would all have been mere imaginings, and how could I ever get over that? I can't imagine even wanting to.
Lying awake, with my eyes closed, I ponder and panic and come to no conclusion, no resolution. Eventually I do fall asleep, though I don't know how. It gets late, and somehow I trick my mind into ignoring itself.
Albuquerque, Boston, Charleston, Des Moines, Chicago (come back to that the next go-round, or is that cheating?), Edmonton (can I use a Canadian city?), France (not a city), Grand Rapids, Home (a place, maybe, a state of mind, a memory, a . . .
I took a walk with my dog this evening. Two miles around the neighborhood, I kept a leisurely pace and stopped every so often to take a picture. I noticed a lot of things, as I tend to do these days--the way the setting sun skimmed across the northern sides of the houses; the play of shadows on garage doors; the way a little breeze rippled the skirt of a mother at the elementary school playground, her hip thrust out to support one child as she watched another running through the grass. Mostly what I noticed was the quiet, though.
Of course, it's never completely quiet. A breeze would rustle the leaves of a jacaranda as I passed, or a car would drive by. As I crossed the mouth of one cul-de-sac, I heard the rumble of an air compressor and the shouts of childish delight at the simple joy of jumping in an inflatable castle. But these were only fleeting and sporadic. Mostly what I heard was my own footfalls, and the click-clack of my dog's claws on the concrete--the kinds of sounds you can only really notice against a backdrop of real quietness.
Arriving home, I set about filling the silence that now permeates my house, now that Juliette and the kids are 2500 miles away. The whir of the microwave, heating my meal of leftover rice and beans. Shelby Foote's mellifluous drawl as he chuckles over some anecdote revealing the character of some Confederate or Union general--still not enough to overcome the quiet, though, and I drifted off and dozed for a bit, awaking as "Ashokan Farewell" played over the credits. When was the last time I fell asleep on the couch? I don't know, but it's been a while.
This is what I've been doing every night for the past week, and what I imagine I'll do for the next week as well: filling the quiet. Being used to its absence--whether because of the laughter or tears of your children, or even just the television down the hall in our bedroom, lulling Juliette to sleep--quiet now just reminds me of how alone I am.
It's almost the same, though. I stay up late, just as I do when they're here, and my office is lit by the same dim lamp and bright computer screen as every night after Juliette turns in. And after, when I finally admit defeat to my own need for sleep, I walk into the same darkened hallway, and for a moment I can pretend that past each bedroom doorway will be one of them, quietly sleeping. And when I reach my own room, turn out the light, and slide under the blanket, in the dark I can pretend that Juliette is beside me, there just past the part of the bed that I can feel.
It's quiet, and I let the sound of my own breathing, my own heartbeat, carry me off to sleep. In the morning, things will look better again, and I'll be one day closer to seeing them again.
I met Dante in the summer of 2000 when I was working at my future father-in-law's restaurant. I was a few weeks away from turning 21 and Juliette's dad had given me a job waiting tables for the summer, a job I wasn't really qualified for and which I probably didn't deserve. Dante was one of the other waiters on the staff and, like me, he mostly worked lunch shifts so I got to spend a lot of time with him that summer. From the moment I met him, he was always friendly and warm toward me, even though I was a pretty terrible waiter. He was patient and kind, and he helped me a lot. Today I was saddened to learn that he died suddenly and unexpectedly this morning--of a heart attack, I'm told.
I can't help but regret the fact that I didn't know him better. We worked together for a summer, and in the years since we always took a couple of minutes to catch up whenever I came back to the restaurant for a visit with the family. There was a lot I didn't know about him. And yet, looking back, there was a lot I did know. I know he was hard-working, and that he cared about his work and took pride in doing it well. Since that summer we worked together he became a manager at the restaurant, and everyone I've ever talked to about him has loved him. I know that he was easy-going, quick with a smile, a genuinely nice person. I know that he loved his family. I know he had a bit of playfulness to him--I watched him spin a serving tray on one fingertip, laughing, one afternoon after the lunch rush was over. I know he will be missed, by me and many others.
I wish I could remember clearly the last time I saw him--but then, it wasn't remarkable at the time, just another visit home, another meal at the family restaurant. It's not as though this was something any of us saw coming; he wasn't even that much older than I am. So many of the moments in our lives that turn out to be important go unnoticed. I guess that's just the way of things.
My heart goes out to Dante's wife and children. I can't imagine what it would be like to lose a father and husband this way, so completely out of the blue. It's a tragedy, and we are all the worse for his loss.
Goodbye, Dante. I'm glad I had the chance to know you.
An Audience of None
At stoplights, I like to look around at the other cars around me and see what the other drivers are doing. Usually they're just sitting and staring at the light, and these days it's pretty common to see them texting. Once in a while I'll see some guy picking his nose or some woman fixing her makeup. But my absolute favorite is when I see someone singing.
I've always been a car singer. When I was little, in the back seat of my mom's car, the chest strap of my seat belt would become a guitar and I would rock out to her Billy Ocean tape. Nowadays, I might sing to Jason about taking him on a magic carpet ride during our drive to pre-school. Sometimes I sing to my steering wheel about being a pair of underwater pearls or imploring it to bring it's sweet loving on home to me. Sometimes I sing softly, sometimes I get carried away. I have, on occasion, drawn smirks from other drivers.
But, you know, even though I look every day, I rarely see anyone else singing, or even so much as bopping their heads or drumming a finger on the steering wheel. Every once in a while, though, I'll look over and see someone, head thrown back, shoulders bouncing, belting one out with abandon. And on the best days, they happen to notice me noticing them while we both sing, and we share a little smile. Neither of us knows what tune is on the other's stereo, but there's still a recognition, a tiny bond. It only lasts a second or two before it's time to move again, but while it lasts it's wonderful.
Backwards and Forwards
This is the time of year for retrospectives and resolutions, both of which always strike me as simultaneously necessary and kind of ridiculous. There's always so much navel-gazing and hand-wringing, and then there's all the subsequent navel-gazing and hand-wringing about the navel-gazing and hand-wringing. And yet, reflection is good for the soul, goals give you something to reach for, and, well, if I weren't the type to do my introspection in such a public manner, you wouldn't be reading this, would you?
2011 was a year of discovery and redefinition for me. I found out that I am a good enough photographer that people will pay me to take their pictures. I got the first inklings of what it's like to be the father of a daughter. I learned that I can write on a schedule, but not when I'm also trying to support a photo business, a day job, two kids, a wife, a dog, and a social life.
I started out the year thinking of myself as a father, a husband, a writer, an engineer, and lots of other things. Now? Still a father and husband, of course, but with my daughter's birth and my son continuing to grow and change, those mean something different now. (I suppose that will always be true.) Am I still a writer? I suppose, since I still write, but I'm not really trying to be a writer anymore, being so caught up with being a photographer.
And what's the plan for 2012? What will I do differently? What will I start and what will I stop?
One thing I will stop is promoting this blog the way I used to. I've spent a lot of time over the past few years thinking and planning and trying to figure out how to get more readers, more pageviews. At one time I wanted to be the next Heather Armstrong, but I think we can all agree that the blogger-turned-Internet-celebrity ship has sailed. And that's just fine. I'm gratified (and a little amazed) that there are a few people out there who enjoy reading this site, but it's time for me to stop trying so hard to be popular and just write because it's what I like to do.
The rest? Maybe I'll lose weight, write more, take more pictures, get to bed earlier. It's not looking so great for that last one, so far, but who knows?
I'm looking forward to finding out.
It Forgets You
This morning I stood in front of the house I grew up in, for the first time in seven years. It was different, and the same. Like me, I suppose.
I was surprised at how small it looked--how small the whole neighborhood looked, actually. And how graceless the lines were, how rough the walls. I didn't step onto the property, just stood on the gravel outside the driveway and looked in. The air smelled of oak and earth and river plants and cold, just the way I remembered. Familiar, but foreign now.
Everything about the old neighborhood was like that. The doghouse next door had the same names on it, though the people had moved away--and, come to think of it, those dogs are probably long since dead. The little stone mailbox down the street was gone and across from where it had stood someone had put up a mansion--with columns! But just past that was the thicket of cactus where my brother and I had hid and rained down with squirt guns on our friends. The big chalk shelf we used to swim next to was still there, but the river didn't cover it anymore. The same, but different.
Standing there looking at the house my parents sold seven years ago, I knew, finally, that I could never live in that town again. I've carried little bits and pieces of the place with me for all this time, leaves that I could press between the pages of my memory, or maybe old, worn photos that I could keep in my wallet and thumb the edges of every now and again. But I spent too long away; now these old photos are all I have, and coming back, they're all I can see. You can't build a new life around the ghosts of your old one.
I don't know exactly how long I stood there, my breath steaming in the cold of the morning, looking at that old house. Eventually, a man on a motorcycle rode up and parked in the driveway. "Hi there," he said, smiling.
"Morning," I replied. He tucked his helmet under his arm and pulled the keys out of the ignition. I blurted out, "I used to live here." I immediately felt pathetic, but continued on anyway. "Almost fifteen years ago now."
We chatted for a few minutes. I found out he'd been renting the place for four months. He was very polite; friendly, even. I felt awkward for interrupting his morning and quickly bid him good day.
I took a turn by my mom's old shop--empty now--and my old school. I took a moment to visit the tree we planted at my afterschool program to remember a friend who had died. I took a picture of it, then reached out and touched it's cool, rough bark. Some kids were playing at the playground next door while their moms complained about the school's plans to remove the sandboxes and replace them with wood chips. I'm not sure if they noticed me standing there, nor what they would have seen if they did. A strange man caressing a tree, I guess.
We like to think that when something or some place leaves its mark on us, it, too, retains some imprint from us. But it doesn't really work that way. You may not forget it, but eventually it forgets you.
Neither I Nor Rodney Dangerfield
I am a man. I am a father and husband. Around my house, I am responsible for things like taking the garbage cans out to the curb, squashing spiders, grilling, putting up Christmas lights, administering our home computer network, changing lightbulbs and batteries, assembling new furniture and electronics, and balancing our checking account. And, yes, I watch the occasional game of football.
I also kiss boo-boos. I clean the kitchen and dining room, every day. I change diapers. I feed babies. I bathe my son and brush his teeth and put his pajamas on. I take my son to school. I do laundry. I rock my daughter to sleep. I give my kids as many hugs and kisses as they'll allow. I play with them, but I also educate them about the rules of the house and society, and enforce those rules, and do so calmly. I sing to my son every night. I show up to doctor's and dentist's appointments, and teacher conferences, dance recitals, and music lessons. I am, in almost every conceivable way, as much a parent as my wife is.
Of course, none of that will stop people from automatically assuming that Juliette does everything around the house and that I'm essentially a very large child, obsessed with games and toys and not really a contributor to my family in any non-financial way. And no one will ever honor or venerate me as a nurturer or life-giver. I can't lactate or carry a child or give birth, so none of the rest of it really matters, not in terms of getting any respect as a parent.
Why does this even matter to me? After all, the people who really matter and who really know me--including the most important one, Juliette--know that I'm a good dad and a good husband. It shouldn't matter to me when some woman I've barely met rolls her eyes and mutters "Men..." It shouldn't offend me that the primary representation of fatherhood in TV and movies is of a bumbler who barely knows his children. It shouldn't bother me that Father's Day cards and commercials almost all have the message "You don't really want to be doing this parenting thing anyway, so why don't you take the day off?"
But it does. It really, really does.
I know it sounds like I'm trying to eat my cake and have it, too. I get that women have it bad in this world. No, I really do. I know that women receive less pay for the same work and less respect for the same level of expertise. I know that the vast majority of property and businesses are owned by men. I know that there is a systemic bias in our culture that steers girls away from "masculine" fields like science, technology, and business leadership. I know all of that, and, believe me, I am outraged by it. I hated it before I was a father, and now that I have a daughter, I hate it even more. I tell my daughter--who is too young to know what I'm saying yet--that she is beautiful, but I also tell her that she is smart and strong and that she has value apart from the way she looks, and that she can be anything she wants to be. I tell those things to my son, too.
So, yes, I know there is inequality in the world, and that I am a member of a group that benefits from that inequality. I also know that we live in a culture where the stories we choose to tell ourselves, especially at this time of year, teach us that the things that we associate with masculinity--physical prowess, career, money, authority--are ultimately shallow, immature, or empty, and that the truly important things in life are home, family, and personal relationships. The things that I'll never really be given credit for, not in any general sense.
And you know, maybe I could still deal with all of that if not for the fact that my kids seem to feel the same way. Oh, I know they love me, but it still stings that Jason's first request in the morning, every morning, is "Mommy," and if he sees me first instead, he cries. That he'll often ask for her to sub in during my parts of our routine, but rarely the other way around. That he usually only cries for me when I'm not around, but often cries for her when she's right there. Eva seems to show that preference, too, though at this point I'm hopeful that it's mostly due to her desire to eat.
In the end, all I can do is what I already do: the best I can. I hear tell that the current crop of dads is the most involved and nurturing group of men in several generations. Maybe by the time I'm a grandfather, fathers will get the recognition that I seem to want so badly now.
I'm not really holding my breath, though.
On (the) Edge
Juliette asked me last night how I was feeling. "Are you excited, nervous, happy, sad, what?" she asked, adding "I'm all of those."
"I'm pretty level, actually," I replied. And, emotionally, I'd say that's pretty spot on. I'm not feeling anything particularly strongly right now--in a lot of ways it hardly seems real that I'm going to have another child in less than twelve hours.
Something's definitely going on with me, though. All day there's been a certain tension in my body. I'm having trouble sitting still, and as I type this, my fingers aren't finding the right keys with my normal accuracy. I even feel a little sick to my stomach. Clearly, the anticipation is affecting me, even if my conscious mind isn't aware of it.
It doesn't make much sense at first glance. I have a child already, I know what I'm getting myself into, more or less. There's no real reason for me to be anxious--I know I can handle this.
The difference, though, is that when Jason was born, it was sudden. We didn't know when, exactly, it would be happening--I was in the middle of a conversation at work when Juliette called me to tell me her water had broken. This time we have a schedule, and the concreteness of it is making the experience feel quite different.
I don't really know how I'm going to get to sleep tonight, but the alarm will be going off in seven and a half hours, so I had better figure it out. Good night, everybody. The next time you hear from me, I'm going to be a dad. Again.
(For my father-in-law [and Esther]: Kaynehora.)
I've been thinking a lot about liminal points lately. It's a concept I first came across in my classical mythology class back in college, having to do with the religious practices of the ancient Greeks. A liminal point, you see, is a point of transition, and for the Greeks these were a big deal. It was at these points of moving from one place to another that, they believed, you were most vulnerable to evil spirits, and so, for example, when setting out on a journey they would stop at the edge of their city to perform protective rituals. And it wasn't just literal transitions like city limits and national borders that were important, but also figurative ones, like the birth of a child or the passing from life to death. Each of these moments had to be properly respected, and proper precautions had to be taken to ensure everything would proceed smoothly.
It's not surprising that liminality would be on my mind these days, considering how much of my life is in flux right now. I'm in the process of changing my career, which both excites and terrifies me, not to mention keeps me so busy that I haven't had much time for personal writing--I've been spending between two and four hours a night working on either planning or post-production every night for the past several weeks.
And then, of course, there's the fact that in less than 60 hours, I'll have a daughter.
I've had over a year to prepare myself for the idea of having another child, counting from when we started trying. I still can't get my head around it. In some ways, it's harder to understand than it was when I was waiting for Jason to be born. Sure, there was a lot I didn't know back then, but it was easier to imagine. Sure, I'd never changed a diaper, myself, but I'd been around babies before, I'd rocked them and gotten them to laugh at me and even held one through the night. I didn't know what it would be like to love and be loved by my own child, but I knew what it was like to love my wife, my family, my dog. (I know it's not the same, the love you feel for and receive from a pet, but, honestly, it's really more a difference of degree than of kind--a huge degree, to be sure, but still.)
Oddly, it's the very fact that I do have experience as a parent that's making it so much more confusing this time. I know how it feels to look down at my sleeping boy and feel so much affection that it feels like I can't breathe, to want nothing more than to climb into bed beside him and hold him and feel the warmth of his breath on my cheek. I can't imagine feeling the same way about anyone else as I do about him--it feels like I'm at my capacity, my arms are completely full and I couldn't possibly stretch them any further to pick up anything else. I know I will love my daughter, but right now I can't understand what that means.
And I know, too, how to do all of the little tasks that are required in order to care for a baby. I know how to change her diaper, how to dress her, bathe her, feed her, burp her. There are a million things that I never had to do before Jason was born that are now completely familiar to me. But that very familiarity makes it that much harder to comprehend just how my life will be different with a second child. I know that things are going to change completely again, but I have no idea how.
And so, faced with the prospect of once again venturing into the unknown, I find myself engaging in my own rituals of liminality. I make lists, pack bags, go over my plans again and again. I check my camera batteries. I write. It helps a little. Soon enough, the liminal point will have passed, and maybe I'll be able to let out this breath I've been holding. I hope so.