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Friday, March 16, 2007

The Dirt On Dad

The first major obstacle, and there would be many, that I had to wrap my head around when I first became a stay-at-home-dad was laundry. With a thirteen-month-old boy, there was always laundry to be done. Growing up my mother always had a dedicated day for laundry, usually Saturdays but sometimes Sundays. By the time I got to college and started washing my own clothes I noticed religious undertones to doing laundry; for some it was like the Sabbath, a day dedicated to observing nothing but washing machines and dryers.

But with an infant, laundry can be a daily routine. There are burp cloths, drool bibs and exploding diapers. It is basically impossible to keep a baby’s clothes clean - they puke, they piss, they crawl, and they cry - there’s not a moment in their existence at this stage of life when they possibly can’t soil their clothes.

Laundry, and the constant need to do it, was the first household chore to make me feel like I was going mentally ill. It was like trying to stave off waves from the sand castle you built at the beach as a kid, a useless and plumb silly task. And just when you thought you’d gotten a hand on the boy’s laundry, along came time to wash our clothes. I had to have a crash course from my wife in the basics of “line drying” clothes and told that it was imperative that I read the labels as to how to care for certain articles of clothes. Curses! It just seemed to never end. As a matter of fact, almost seven years later I still find that there’s always a load of laundry to be done only now I sometimes ignore the pile of dirty clothes until they get up and walk away.

It would pretty much be the same way with dishes. There would always be a bottle to wash. Although we were still breast feeding our son, my wife had to pump her breasts so there was always an arsenal of breast pump mechanics to be disinfected and cleaned as well. I began to formulate a design for the man-boob; some sort of breast-like device that a father could wear that would simulate the scenario of breastfeeding on mom’s teat. I’m sure it has been invented by now.

The dishwasher and the laundry machines became my new best friends, we shared coffee and conversation together most mornings although they weren’t very good at conversation – it was pretty much a one-way street but they were very attentive and great listeners.

In keeping with the cleaning m.o., I started a very intimate relationship with our vacuum cleaner. Much like dishes and dirty clothes, there wasn’t a day that went by that I felt I couldn’t find a reason to use the vacuum. That first Christmas after I became an at-home dad my wife got me one of those Dirt Devil hand-held vacuums, the only downside to the Dirt Devil was that it didn’t come with a holster. It would be much further into my tour of duty that I would discover the genius that is the Swiffer and his glorious cousin the Wet Swiffer. Somewhere down the line, I began thinking about leaving my Hoover for a Dyson, but those Dysons I just couldn’t afford.

There’s one common thread here and that is my own anal retentiveness. I found that I was becoming completely obsessive about trying to have everything clean all the time. A few years later I would learn to let go, that it was OK to not have the household clean as a whistle 24/7. I realized that the pursuit of such a thing would drive you completely bonkers. I also have come to the conclusion that it is perfectly okay to be bonkers.


ESL For Kids - Trying to explain the good from bad*

Just the other day my 4-and-a-half year old son Spencer got his first black eye.

It happened the way most injuries happen to little boys – by accident.

Spencer was watching a television show. Worked up with nervous energy, he decided he was going to start spinning around in the middle of the family room.

“Be careful,” I said.

“Know your surroundings,” I said wondering to myself if my words ever since past the cranial cracks of his thick skull.

“Watch it!” I hollered. The preceded to chide him about getting too close to the edge of the futon couch, visions of hospital emergency rooms dancing in my head.

And that’s when I averted my eyes for s second.

And then there was the sound: Thunk! The indecipherable wail of sheer pain followed soon after and I knew exactly what had happened by deductive reasoning. Now finding the exact spot of impact was a more challenging task.

“Where does it hurt?” I asked him.

“My fa-fa-faaaa-ce,” he said.

“I know, I know but where on your face?” I said.

“Here,” he said between sobs and pointed to his cheekbone.

I did my best sports trainer impersonation to try and get him to let me put some ice on it, but he would have none of that nonsense. Thirty minutes later, he was no worse for the wear and back out on his bicycle riding about the neighborhood, nary a spot of evidence to indicate the household trauma that just took save for an itty, bitty scratch just left of center of his nostril.

By the next day, a fair amount of his left cheek was puffy, like he’d been bitten by a bug or something. As day-three-after-the-accident began, the makings of a black eye were starting to appear. By nightfall, he had a full-fledged shiner.

The next day he came home from playschool talking about frozen peas. After much deliberation, I deducted this: His teacher Jane had mentioned something to him about having a “shiner” and that he should put a bag of frozen peas on it.

“What are peas?” he asked.

“Those little, round green things you hate to eat,” I said.

“Why would you put peas on your face?” He asked.

Clearly, I could see this was going down a road I was going to be unable to navigate; a road where questions arise like possums crossing the blacktop in the night. You know they are out there it’s just that you don’t ever expect to see them, much less hit one.

I was about to crash full-on into a serious dilemma of inexplicable dimensions.

By the time my wife came home from work that night, Spencer’s left eye socket was a marble of purple, blue, green and yellow hues. She asked him how school was and he told her about the frozen peas. She was as confused and I was at first mention of the frozen peas.

“Frozen peas?” she said. “What are you talking about?”

I stepped in and explained everything as best I could.

My wife beamed with excitement.

“Your first shiner!” she said.

“We’ve got to get a picture of that,” she said. “We’ve got to document that.”

“But why do they call it a shiner mom?” asked Spencer. “And why are you so excited about something that has caused me so much pain?”


My wife turned to me with a look of astonishment on her face: “Uh, help me out here Greg,” she said.

“It’s like a rite of passage,” I began, “You will have painful things happen to you over the years that mark your path to becoming a young boy, and even, a man.”

This is precisely the wrong thing to do here, as most parenting textbooks will tell you; you should avoid at all costs giving existential lectures to children, much less children under the age of five. But I do it so often, and sometimes, I think I do it well.

I tried my best to explain the ratio of bruises and broken bones to a boy’s age. When I was younger I had amassed over 300 stitches by the time I was 15 I told him. I added that I also had my share of scrapes and bruised yet I somehow managed to avoid ever breaking any bones. I suspected I may have broken a rib and a toe over the years but they were never officially diagnosed by a doctor.

I then launched into a spiel about good and bad, trying my best to explain their differences, or in some cases, why using the term “bad” might actually mean good. Its times like this that I feel like I’m teaching an ESL class to my kids. “Some things, bad or good…” my wife wisely interrupted me before I ran off down the Philosophy 101 road.

“We’ll stop talking about your shiner now,” she said.

Another good example of teaching ESL to my kids happened just a few weeks before the “shiner” incident. It was the day I got blindsided by the “hurricane” fiasco.

As the days leading up to Hurricane Frances counted down, it was virtually impossible to avoid having the kids see/hear references to the big storm. Sometimes they spot the occasional gun-toting Iraqi or some cracked-out redneck while channel surfing past the evening news, but I usually do a good job of monitoring what goes in their eyes and ears.

Yes, my kids watch too much TV. But shit, what do you do when your son figures out how to operate the remote? In my case, I tell ‘em ESPN is channel 31.

Sports are good.

And there are all kinds of lessons to be learned through sportsmanship; through playing on teams. But, and there’s always a “but,” it can bite you in the ass.

Here’s my ass-biting anecdote: We are driving in the car listening to the local modern rock radio affiliate when an emergency broadcast bulletin is broadcast over the radio waves.

“Beep! Beep! Beep!” screamed the radio.

“A tornado warning has been issued for…” and blah, blah, blah the National Weather Service went on to warn residents of hurricane force winds and possible flooding. A voice spoke from the backseat.

“That was kind of scary dad,” said Spencer.

“Well, hurricanes can be kind of scary,” I said, “and dangerous.”

“If hurricanes are so bad, why is there a hockey team named the Hurricanes?” he asked.

“Damn!” I said to myself then dug deep and hard.

“Maybe the people who named the team just wanted to focus on the fact that hurricanes are strong and powerful,” I said in my best faux televangelist speak. “Maybe they just don’t want to think about the bad things a hurricane can do.”

I don’t think I dig a good job of saving my ass – my days are numbered.

*A version of this essay originally appeared in Raleigh's The Hatchet.