Dad Problems

When I was young, my dad once burst into my sister’s room with a hysterical shriek, declaring, without any evidence whatsoever, that she was using a disproportionate amount of toilet paper and was going to have to find a way to cut down, or face serious consequences.   

It’s unknown how exactly he’d come to this oddly specific conclusion, but once my sister had come to terms with the fact that this wasn’t a fever dream, but a situation occurring in reality, she practically burst a blood vessel telling him to get the fuck out, like any sane human would.

And now, I find myself yelling at my son about the exact same thing. But it’s a little different – he’s four, still mastering the intricacies of bathroom hygiene, and using at least half a roll per poop. Sometimes, he just bundles it all up and mixes it with water, for no reason, creating a thick, impenetrable paste that perfectly blocks the sink.    

See what I’ve become? I am my father, fixated on bathroom utilities, seriously considering the prospect of toilet paper rationing. I spend my days wandering from one household disaster to another, always slightly out of my element, armed with duct tape and a wobbly Ikea screwdriver.

I give people detailed descriptions of the cruel things my children do to me on a daily basis, while they try their best to look as though they give a flying fuck. I just want to go back to worrying about non-dad problems, problems that other people actually want to hear about.

But fatherhood is tough, man. You have this incessant build-up of first-world problems, combined with scary responsible adult ones, and then you get like 3 hours sleep to process it all, until the toddler pays a visit to your bed so he can jump on your head for a bit.  

So, you start to crack. You reach the fractured psychological state that leads to dad jokes. You find yourself muttering Cat in the Hat rhymes under your breath while walking down the street, eliciting sympathetic looks from strangers, and saying, “oh sugar,” unironically, when you drop something on the floor.   

It’s a strange existence, to be sure. And annoyingly, when I complain to my wife, she unloads all of her problems, which involve considerably more stress, considerably less sleep, and to top it off, an insane amount of guilt.

That’s the really crazy thing about motherhood; most of them work their asses off, every hour of every day, and don’t sleep, ever. Somebody always needs them for love, comfort, or sandwiches. And when they finally get, like, half an hour to chill on their phone, they instantly search for a mommy article that chastises them for doing a terrible job, and then they believe it.

They become convinced that they’ve permanently destroyed their kid’s confidence because they don’t brush their hair enough, or give them back massages before bed, or teach them the alphabet before 2, or after 2. Some articles even state, with alarming confidence, that you’re damaging your children’s ability to learn by teaching them to read before the age of seven.

The average mother dips into this swirling cesspit of wildly conflicting opinions, and absorbs the ones that make her feel the shittiest, because there’s always the chance that the 17-year-old intern who wrote it knows more about parenthood than they do, because of that childcare course they took in college.

But when you’re a dad, you don’t feel much guilt. You feel satisfied by just existing. And the world validates you for simply being present, for not running away. I high-fived my kids goodbye the other day and some woman actually chased me down the street, out of breath, to tell me that I’m a great dad. What does she know? I might have beat them within an inch of their lives the same night, all she saw was a damn high-five.

But if my wife looks disheveled, or yells at the kids for being whiny little shits, every other woman in the room will notice, and they shame her with their eyes. It’s pretty intense. But I give my son a kiss on the forehead, and I practically get a standing ovation.

As an added bonus, I never read dumb parenting articles (just write them), so I don’t really feel guilty for giving my kids the wrong kind of eye contact, or whatever. So I guess fatherhood isn’t all that bad.  

But the issue I’m highlighting is an inescapable part of modern-day parenting – (mis)information overload. There are moments when you won’t be quite sure which decision will fuck up your child, so you just have to go with your gut, and sometimes, your gut is wrong.

An old woman, mother of five, once gave me great parenting advice in a bar. She told me that I was guaranteed to make mistakes, massive mistakes, so it’s foolish to strive for parental perfection. You simply have to live with whatever you did to mess up, and trust that your kid is more resilient than you think.

Then, she proudly declared that none of her children had any trouble with the police before the age of fifteen, which, apparently, was meant as a testament to her child-rearing skills. I think. But I met her a few of her kids, and they were really cool, lawbreakers or not.

Point is, parenthood is tough, so go easy on the guilt. Unless, of course, you’re one of those people who makes a Facebook page for your baby.

Then you should feel bad.

Milestones

Not long ago, the youngest successfully took his first steps. Around the same time, the eldest attended his first day of school.

Overnight, the baby and the boy evaporated, replaced by a toddler and a schoolboy. Time flies when you’re having fun and raising children (one of these things is not like the other), and the second you’ve got things figured out, the rules suddenly change, and the game grows in complexity.  

Now that the eldest has started school, a massive part of his upbringing and influence is outside our control, forever. Initially, that was a strange, sad concept; it almost felt cruel to send him off into the school system, a world of drudgery and apathetic adults.

When I was little, I hated school. But then again, I was a strange child, prone to drifting off into elaborate fantasies, particularly when being given detailed instructions.

My pleasant daydreams would inevitably be shattered by the panicked realization that the other children were confidently striding out of the classroom, toward an unknown destination, brandishing wire cutters or something. I’d run after them, unsure where to find wire cutters, quietly praying that the teacher would repeat herself.

But I was pretty good at concealing my ignorance; I didn’t memorize the order of the alphabet until I was ten, and somehow, nobody noticed. But I carried an intense paranoia of one day being stopped by the police and being forced to say the alphabet backward, or even forward, as they did to people on tv.

My childhood years were spent fretting about unspoken anxieties like that, and I was concerned that the eldest might have a similar experience. Well, not quite the same as mine because he’s not an introverted oddball – far from it, in fact.

But Kate started to get paranoid that the eldest wasn’t quite ready, and one day, out of the blue, proposed that we just not send him to school that year.

“Umm … is that legal?” I asked.

“Literally everybody does it now. Think about it – he’s going to be one of the youngest kids in his class. And I just read a poorly researched, hastily written article that said that, in kindergarten, the kids born later in the year are practically guaranteed to crumble from the pressures of the education system and become, like, losers when they get older.”

“And this is a thing people do?”

It absolutely is. “Redshirting,” the practice of waiting another year to enroll your child in school, so that they are more likely to be one of the oldest, tallest, and presumably, the most dominant, is relatively common. Pretty much every mother we asked had at least considered it, if not done it.

I’m not joking about the dominance thing – the mothers we talked to about this first-world phenomenon seemed convinced that human society is binary, divided into “leaders” and “followers,” and were determined to forge their four-year-old into a leader.

I’m not sure what “leader” in this context means. A CEO? Football captain? Assertive extrovert? An asshole?

I think they mean an asshole. But we went ahead and tossed the eldest in the education system regardless, and instantly, all of our fears were confirmed, especially when he had to be physically torn from Kate, finger by finger, sobbing like he was being thrown into Victorian-era foster care.

The stressful scene momentarily made me question whether I’d been too hasty in my dismissal of redshirting. What if he really was too young, and the pressure morphed him into one of those dreaded “followers?”

The next few days were intense. Kate fed her ever-growing guilt by reading more redshirting articles to assure herself that she’d done the wrong thing, while I anxiously asserted that he’d probably be fine and that we should just ignore the problem until it goes away. Incidentally, this pretty much sums up my approach to life.

Thankfully, my approach paid off; he chilled out after a week, made tons of friends, and nowadays when I drop him off he doesn’t even turn his head to say goodbye. I know he’s fine because when I ask him how his day went he says “fine,” and that he did “nothing.” Maybe these are early indications of leadership qualities, I don’t know.

The eldest has changed though; his vocabulary dramatically improved, his maturity level shot up, and he already knows the order of the alphabet. Now, when I pretend to be impressed with something unimpressive, he feels patronized rather than validated, which is oddly intimidating.

So, I pretty much just talk to him like an adult, and if he doesn’t understand my misinterpretation of today’s geopolitical landscape, well, that sucks for him.

Meanwhile, the youngest is slowly building a vocabulary, meaning that his adorable baby babble is doomed to disappear, sooner rather than later. Once walking and talking is mastered, you only have about a year of true innocence left.

Innocence is indescribably precious, not just because it is fleeting, but because of the golden smile that accompanies it. That expression of raw, unfiltered joy you see on the face of a beaming toddler just doesn’t exist in the adult world. Except, perhaps, when dangerously intoxicated.

But it isn’t quite the same.

How to Try to Meditate

I’ve been trying to meditate for a year now. “Trying” means that once in awhile, I spend ten minutes with my eyes closed, and then annoy friends and family by insisting that I’ve reached Nirvana (you’re not allowed to do it if you don’t brag about it).

There was a time when I was doing it daily, and I felt a difference. But it’s subtle. It’s as imperceptible as a sugar high; you might be buzzing, but you don’t really notice until you come down, and the mild irritation hits.

And that’s a bit like what meditation is like; you notice when you don’t do it, not when you do. And that really sucks, because it’s difficult to convince yourself to do anything regularly, let alone something that you can barely register.

It’s only ten or fifteen minutes a day, and everybody has time for that. That’s a YouTube video. That’s a masturbation session. That’s a scroll through a timeline, a procrastination, a daydream.

But it’s just so much easier to do those things than it is to sit with your eyes closed and concentrate on your breath. Your breath is pretty damn boring, and like everyone else, I’m used to being constantly entertained; I could be spending those precious minutes watching some dick on YouTube desperately trying to change my political views through articulate misinformation, reading about how Trump’s tweets physically tore a hole in the ozone layer, or contributing to the pointless democracy of Reddit and Facebook with my “likes.”  

I slowly slipped out of the habit, the way you carelessly slip out of any healthy activity, and now I meditate “once in awhile.” Whenever that is.

Irregular practice of an activity often means failure, even if you enjoy said activity. Without scheduled sessions, my meditation attempts are easily disrupted by mild inconveniences. I attempted to meditate the other day, hoping to clear my notification-obsessed mind during an unsatisfying writing session.

I sat in the living room, setting a timer for an ambitious fifteen minutes. All I could hear was the steady tick-tock of the clock, and I spent the first few minutes with my blood pressure slowly rising, unable to think about anything but dismantling that clock. It took every ounce of self-control I had to stop myself from removing the batteries, but eventually, I got over it. I stopped hearing the clock, and settled into deep breathing.  

Then my cat found me. My cat, Dylan, is like a sexual opportunist at a house party; he’s excellent at spotting weakness, and will seize any opportunity to trap an unsuspecting victim into a heavy petting session.

I focused on breathing slowly, in, and out, while Dylan furiously massaged himself against my unmoving hand. I believe that if I dropped down dead on the floor, Dylan would spend several days rubbing his face against my cold, unfeeling fingers.

In desperation, I got up, and put some wet food in his bowl, out of schedule, just to distract him during my remaining eleven minutes. But have you ever heard a cat eat wet food before?

While I sat trying to regain my concentration, the slurpy smacking sound resonated from the bowl as though it were playing through a speaker beside my ear.

It sounded like a sea snail performing cunnilingus on a particularly slimy jellyfish, with great relish. And it takes Dylan at least forty minutes to finish a can, because he licks it off one molecular layer at a time.

Haunted by the sound, and distressing mental imagery, I gave in. But the defeat sparked a flash of insight.

Because every time I feed my cat, I ring a little dinner bell first, so that he knows not to beg for food until he hears the bell. I do it so that he doesn’t wake me up at 3am asking for snacks (which he still very much does). But I figured Pavlov’s Bell applies to humans too.  

And I happen to have a pair of tingsha bells in my office, because I am, at heart, a white stoner who fetishizes Eastern belief systems. The bells are some kind of meditation aid, but I found my own use for them by ringing them just before I meditate.

And so far, it’s actually working. The sound triggers a little thing in my brain that takes away the urge to go do something else. Once I’ve rung them, I simply have to sit down and breathe slowly.

Now all I have to do, is convince myself to ring it more often.

Frightened Rabbit

The other day, the family and I were taking a walk through the local nature trail (I say nature trail, but it’s really just a footpath with trees). While Kate was giving me a step-by-step rundown of Kim Kardashian’s latest feud with Krunchy Kardashian, I was staring into space and nodding sagely.

“That’s insane. Krunchy should not have spoken to her like that,” I said, making sure to throw in a slow head-shake, to express my sincere disapproval at Krunchy’s brazen, on-camera disrespect to her sister, or cousin, or whatever.

“Right? So Kim says that there’s no place for that in her family. None whatsoever. And so I was thinking we should apply the lessons learned from this blatantly false feud to the genuine disagreements I sometimes have with my sister, and listen to Kim Kardashian’s hollow, soulless advice that is so far removed from my reality, it might as well be an infomercial, which I think it might be, and tell my sister there’s no place for that in our family. None whatsoever,” Kate said, while texting her sister a message to go fuck herself.

“You should,” I nodded. “That sounds like the actions of a sensible person. Hey look – is that a rabbit?”

In front of us, in the bushes, there was a flash of brown fur. We all hurried over to catch a glimpse, and sure enough, within the bush lay a terrified, yet adorably photogenic, baby rabbit.

“Awwwwwwwwwwwwwww,” Kate said, practically collapsing in a teary-eyed heap. “Can we take him home?”

She was perfectly serious. But in her defense, I think the many demands of motherhood warp your perspective a little bit. In fact, before Kate became a mother, she didn’t give the slightest shit about baby animals, viewing them as a potential snack that hadn’t yet gone through the meat-grinder.

But sometime during the middle of pregnancy number 1, Kate had a dramatic, hormone-fuelled change of heart, and can now be brought to tears at the sight of a mama cat licking her kittens, or of a baby elephant doing absolutely anything.

The eldest’s eyes widened. This wasn’t an option he had ever considered, but it came out of the mouth of mom, so it must be legitimate.

“I want to bring him home, daddy.”

I thought for a second, and decided I didn’t want to be viewed as an asshole, because as the father, that’s usually your role. So I said, “Sure. If you can catch him, we can take him home.”

Obviously, the baby rabbit, whose heart was pounding in his tiny chest, would bolt the second we got a step closer; it was a safe bet that’d make me look momentarily well-intentioned.

Kate edged closer, and reached for the rabbit. He didn’t react at all. He even let her stroke his fur.

“What the fuck?” I thought.

Kate was as taken aback as I was. No doubt, the creature was paralyzed with fear, but the eldest interpreted it as consent to be taken captive.  

“Pick it up mummy!” he shouted, a steely glint in his eye.

Kate gently wrapped her fingers around the rabbit and was weirded out by how gross it felt, or something, because she screamed and let go. Finally, the bloody thing scampered off, out of sight.

The eldest gave out a loud, frustrated yell. The youngest giggled, always amused by the eldest’s despair.

“That’s a shame,” I shrugged, trying to conceal my relief. “If you caught him, we could have taken him home. But he’s gone now. That sucks.”

“Look, he’s right there!” Kate cried, pointing to the path ahead.

I couldn’t believe it. The wretched creature was sitting three steps ahead of us, right on the path, frozen with terror again. Clearly, the thing had no sense of self-preservation whatsoever, and was destined to be devoured by the next fox that happened to pass by.

“Can you pick it up and take it home, daddy?” the eldest begged.

Kate looked at me with her giant anime eyes, pleading silently.

Goddammit. What the hell was wrong with this thing?

I edged toward it, making as much noise as humanly possible. The rabbit didn’t move a muscle. It was right there – if I picked it up, I don’t think it would have protested in the slightest. And I was just about to, when a comment I read on Reddit the other day flashed through my brain. Read it here, and be prepared to be paranoid about contracting rabies every time you step outside, for the rest of your life.

In a nutshell, the commentator describes how the slightest scratch, or bite, from a wild animal could result in a deranged descent into incurable madness and death, even several years after the seemingly-innocuous scratch. After reading, I had resolved to never-ever touch so much as a squirrel.

What if this weird little bunny bit me? There was clearly something wrong with it, at least from an evolutionary perspective. I moved closer, and the creature’s instincts finally kicked in, and it ran off, away into the deepest part of the trail, to a place that I decided was unreachable.  

The eldest gave out another wail of anguish. The youngest giggled again. Kate was sincerely disappointed.

“Why didn’t you pick it up? It was so cute.”

The eldest echoed her sentiment, with more exclamation marks.

Later that night, after putting the kids to sleep, we finally relaxed on the sofa and put on Netflix, trying to avoid thinking about all the tasks we had to do tomorrow.

Kate sighed satisfactorily, and said, “I’m like, so glad you didn’t pick up that rabbit. I’m not in the mood to deal with that right now.”

The Parenting Paradox

Kate and I have two small children, which means that our life is kind of awful. Everyday activities like “having breakfast” and “leaving the house” are impossibly Herculean tasks that require an inhuman amount of patience, coordination, and energy. But you’re completely drained of these attributes (if you even had them to begin with), because you were woken up at least three times last night; first by the baby, then the toddler, then the cat, who has decided that 2am should definitely be mealtime, and is willing to shriek like a banshee in labor until someone gets out of bed.

A single child requires a serious change of lifestyle and attitude, as the demanding little creature tweaks the settings to your reality, forcibly twisting the dial all the way up to “hard mode.” But having a second child unlocks a hidden, “expert” mode, one reserved for those androids that do their taxes on time and have savings, while you’re still stuck on the first level, unable to keep a dentist appointment.

It’s a bit like living with two chubby-cheeked, anime-eyed dwarfs, designed by a gifted Disney illustrator, except both are severely mentally ill, and view your attempts to put pants on them, or feed them nutrition, as a serious attempt on their life and are willing to fight to the very last breath to resist. Every single time.

But the unrelenting chaos is, sometimes, broken by a moment of awe-inducing innocence, of practically poetic beauty that would melt the hardest of hearts into a weepy, pathetic puddle. These moments serve as a much-needed-reminder that these difficult days are infinitely precious, in a way that you can’t really comprehend until they’re gone forever.

One such moment happened the other day when I took my eldest on a day trip to the Science Centre, our favorite hangout for educational overstimulation. After enjoying a sugar-fuelled speed-run through the building, we were sitting on the bus home, finally at rest. The eldest asked me for a drink of water, and after a search through my backpack, I realized I’d forgotten to bring it, as I often do with vital supplies.

The eldest shot me a strange look, and rooted through his backpack (which I assumed was full of toys, or rocks, or whatever), pulled out his water bottle, and casually took a drink. He’d actually had the foresight to pack it himself – pretty impressive for a three-year-old, and perhaps, a damning assessment of my organizational skills.

Then he pulled out a crumpled piece of paper, on which was scrawled a shapeless cluster of crayon lines, and informed me that it was a letter. Humoring him, I asked what it said. He told me it read: “Dear Daddy, you are my best friend.”

I was floored. It was as though somebody had punched me in the face with sheer love. Every passenger on the bus seemed to momentarily forget the horror of rush hour and soak in the warmth of the moment; the bitter old ladies looked at me with practically orgasmic approval, and the driver’s blood pressure lowered a notch. We stepped off the bus in a blissful haze of wholesomeness, until the eldest informed me that he’d just shat his pants. Obviously, I didn’t pack a spare pair.

This, in a nutshell, is the parenting paradox; it’s both the highest privilege and the heaviest of burdens, the worst experience imaginable, and undoubtedly, the very best years of your life.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some ass to wipe.

Buzz Lightyear – The First Superhero

Kids love superheroes. Aside from the obvious visual appeal of billowing capes and colorful costumes, they love the concept of a divine protector, a guardian with authority beyond that of their parents, the certainty that justice will triumph.

For children, the world is an intimidating place. They get glimpses of how cruel it can be when they encounter the thugs in the sandpit, when they get shoved off the swing and taste blood. The dynamic of the playpark is strangely similar to a prison yard; it’s a place where the strong and snatchy thrive, where the parents are often blissfully unaware of how much of an asshole their little angel actually is.  

But in a cruel and chaotic universe, superheroes inspire hope, confidence, and a sense of responsibility. When a child dresses up as a caped crusader, they are enacting a power fantasy in which they can right the many wrongs they see in the world, and finally teach the bully in the sandpit a lasting lesson before his simpering mom can offer him another sugar-coated word of encouragement.

And the first superhero children are introduced to, is likely to be Buzz Lightyear, because you’re going to want to show them how awesome Toy Story is. Buzz was the first superhero my eldest encountered, and the deluded action figure sparked an obsession. On Christmas morning, his pair of Buzz Lightyear pajamas were valued far higher than the actual toy itself, because he didn’t so much want to play with Buzz – he wanted to be Buzz. This led to regular sessions of adorable roleplay around the house, and a surprising surge in confidence.

These days, having watched Toy Story more times than I ever thought humanly possible, I’m starting to think that Buzz might be the greatest superhero of them all, at least to children. And that’s because his narrative arc perfectly mirrors the tumultuous journey of childhood – it’s not a simple power fantasy. Quite the opposite, in fact.  

Buzz Lightyear’s story isn’t an ascent to power, it’s a dramatic dismantling of ego. Buzz has no origin story; he’s instantly a superhero, the center of attention the second he’s unwrapped from his box. Not only do Andy’s toys practically worship Buzz, he is actually under the impression that he is a real superhero, one responsible for defending the entire galaxy.

Buzz genuinely believes that he is the most important person in the universe, and almost every individual in his social circle treats him that way. Almost like a baby, in a sense. But Buzz’s blissful bubble is broken when Woody, blinded by envy, semi-accidentally pushes him from a window. From there, Buzz descends into the unknown, into the real world, where he is nothing more than a piece of plastic.

In the ensuing journey back to Andy’s house, Buzz constantly ignores the red flags that are pointing toward the true nature of his reality. There comes a point, however, where the delusion is finally shattered – Buzz plummets to the floor after boldly attempting to fly out of a window. As an insult to injury, and further proof that his body is cheap Chinese plastic rather than flesh, his arm painlessly breaks off once he hits the ground.

At this point in the movie, Buzz (understandably) undergoes a complete psychological breakdown. He laments to Woody that all of his memories are completely false. He’s gone from intergalactic superhero to a child’s plaything; it’s difficult to imagine a steeper plummet. It’s quite intense for a kid’s film, when you think about it.

Eventually, Woody helps Buzz come to term with his existence. He’s not the center of the universe anymore, but that’s fine – he can live a fulfilling life, regardless. He’s never going to save the world, but he can make the people close to him happy.

We all go a similar revelation as we grow up. Or least, we should do.

In the sequel, Toy Story 2, the depth of Buzz’s insignificance is really hammered into him, as he walks down the aisle of a toy store and sees shelves filled with hundreds of Buzz Lightyear figurines, all completely identical, all under the exact same superhero delusion that he once was.   

They all have the same buttons, the laser, the retractable wings. The things that make him interesting and unique in his social circle are frighteningly common in the wider world. Hell, an imposter Buzz even manages to replace him, and none of his friends even notice the difference.

So, when Buzz finally catches up to Woody, who is caught up in his own ego after realizing he is a valuable antique, Buzz can relate. Woody wants to live the rest of his life in a glass case, being admired by strangers, but Buzz knows that this road doesn’t lead to happiness. He understands what Woody is feeling, and convinces him that the inflated sense of self-importance is artificial.

Buzz has learned that the only thing that really differentiates him from countless other plastic clones is his personal life experience, which is utterly unique to him, and him alone.

Again, all of us go through something similar, perhaps upon leaving high school and entering college, university, or the job market.

We all get to the point where we realize we’re just another guy or girl, another face in the crowd. We’re not supernaturally talented or destined for success. We’re not special. But our individual perspective and life experience make us all unique.

It’s pretty heavy stuff for a kid’s animation starring sentient action figures. But then again, the films have been playing nonstop at my house for months now, so I may be reading a little too much into things.