Of Bottles and Babies

I met a remarkable young man the other day. Small guy, really, but with an outsized impact. I happen to be looking at a bottle of Glenfiddich as I write this and he’s about the same size.  Fighting trim at five pounds, ten ounces, he showed up a little early but you can’t blame him. He was ready to go. And when you’re ready to go, you’re ready to go. 

With that tautology I welcome Ian Nuri, my very first nephew, to what’s left of the world. Now, I already have extraordinary nieces so I’m not saying anything particularly except that, you know, me being a father of sons, and an older brother to four other men, I feel that the collective family unit was ready for a new penis. And hey, I know, I know. History and all that stuff. You’re not wrong. And I do happen to know some amazing little girls of great and perplexing power. But little boys are a grave and heroic species, and if you think there’s the slightest exaggeration in me saying that I’ve dedicated my life to the several arts of raising them, permit me to set you straight. My sons are, in every respect, the center of my life. They’re the best and most peculiar young men I know, and the project of helping, in a curious and often not-very-powerful way, to navigate the project of their becoming is my goddamn odyssey. 

And friends, I will fail. Probably already have. I want to talk about that. 

As I’ve said many times before, I am a pessimist. Not merely in disposition, but in philosophy. That means that the only thing I accept as truly knowable about my life in this world is that it will end, as will everyone’s. Anything else is hope and conjecture. There isn’t anything particularly wrong with hope and conjecture, but I try not to take them any more seriously than they deserve, which is not very. But here’s the thing: none of this is bad. You’ve got a span of life, and unpredictable death, and no possibility of not screwing it up. At a certain point, this is okay. It means you can afford to let yourself breathe. 

Pessimistic parenting is counter-intuitive to a lot of people but it shouldn’t be. And I get it – I’m sympathetic. You want to do everything right. Of course you do. This amazing beastie that represents everything possible in the world, and to which you are biologically hardwired by a million years of ruthless natural selection, has dropped into your lap and you’re ready to move mountains for her. You want to move mountains for her, in the desperate (and doomed) hope that she will someday notice and understand. It’s not necessarily a hope that she’ll understand the effort that you put in (that’s your problem), so much as a hope that she’ll understand what that effort says about her. You want to burn the nine worlds for her, not so that she’ll appreciate you, but so that she’ll understand that she was worth every spark of the burning. Believe me, I get that. You want the kid to know about him or herself what you were never able to know about yourself

So you try, and that’s okay. Where it all gets tricky is when you fall into the trap of believing that you can make it all work. You convince yourself that you can get it right, get the kid right, get the world right, and that’s the moment when it all goes to shit. Perfection, as always, as in every other part of your life, remains out of reach. You can’t perfect any of those things, and in so doing you miss what you can do. You often miss what you need to do. And that’s the sin against the Holy Ghost, if you ask me. I don’t pretend to know how to do parenting correctly, but I’ve seen enough to have a pretty good idea of how to do it wrong. Doing it wrong begins with trying to do it all right, blowing it (as blow it you must), so that your kids grow up amidst the broken architecture of failed endeavor. You end up giving them a constant sense of their own childhoods as the place where it all went wrong, leaving them unsure of their own role in what was, in the end, the unraveling of your cunning schemes. This is the domain of the neurotic parent, the faintly-vibrating father, the hollow-eyed mom.  Their reach ever exceeding their grasp, the panic grows and curdles. This is how you end up at a Waldorf school, in debt to your eyeballs, parsing your child’s allergies with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar and waiting, lip quivering, for the next terrifying crisis (a lost shoe, a mysterious bruise) to drop. And drop it does. 

I’m not a perfect parent, by any means. But I do think I’ve brought something important to the game. Me, I knew from the jump that I wasn’t going to be a perfect parent, and I was right. Structurally, economically, I’ve been piss poor, but that didn’t surprise anybody. What I’ve tried to do instead was to chart a course through which, and within which, I could always communicate three things to my kids:

  1. Daddy, like all grownups, is imperfect, but his effort and commitment are not. Not a lot of what happens in your life will depend on anything that you inherently are, but nearly everything will hang on what you do, and how hard you’re willing to do it. 
  2. You, my kids, are human beings. Not objects, accessories, projects, or toys.  What you think will always matter. When what you think is weird, which will happen from time to time, we’ll have that conversation. But you were never meant to be seen and not heard, and I’ll never tell you who you’re supposed to be. I won’t even pretend to know. 
  3. We will have discipline in our house, but that’s not to keep you in line. We don’t do order for the sake of order. We have discipline so that you can maximize your agency as human beings. We’ll learn a certain amount of discipline so that you don’t wind up in thrall to all the things you weren’t disciplined about when it mattered.  And I’ll try not to ask for any discipline from you that I don’t demonstrate myself. 

And that’s about it. Do I do these things flawlessly? I do not. But I orient myself around them and I try. And the beauty of my kids getting older is that the dialog that surrounds the effort gets richer every year. They surprise me. They surprise me even though I never really pretended to know what kind of people they would turn into in the first place. They’re stronger and stranger than I’d imagined, sometimes more thoughtful than I’d expected and sometimes less. And they’re not ideal. They can be real shits, just like me. But they’re authentic, fully autonomous little people, and they have questions. 

So the arrival of little scotch-bottle Ian is a real event, even more-so (for me) than it would have been a few years ago. My sense is clearer now that this is, in fact, the advent of a wholly new individual. That fact feels more immediate, having seen what the decade ahead looks like up close. He’ll be lovely, and he’ll be crazy, and my brother will mess it up a little and I’ll probably help, and through all of that a young man will emerge and go screw things up on his own, and all of that is wonderful. Not because it’s perfect, but because it’s not. Only he’s perfect, and only for now. But for now, he gets to be.

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