“Defending the Cavedad”
Not too long ago, as Max and I were walking down a busy city street on a sunny afternoon, we passed a parked car with Junior Wells’s “Shaky Ground” wafting out the win- dow. A look of wide-eyed wonder broke over Max’s face and he started dancing up the street. “Dance wif me Daddy,” he insisted.
At the time, I was the co-executive producer of the tough- est tough-guy show in the nation, America’s Most Wanted. I’d picked up Max after a very serious lunch meeting with the FBI (and how strange is it, for an ex-hippie who spent half his life running from the FBI to spend the second half meeting them for lunch?), so I was not exactly in the mind- set to boogaloo down Broadway. In fact, even for the ex- hippie-type dad, it’s not easy for a fifty-year-old overweight balding white guy to break into dance on a crowded down- town street. Ever. It’s not something you like to admit—but there it is. We’re just not street dancers anymore.
And then I had one of those Proustian moments (I think it was Proustian, anyway. I know about the madeleines and all, but let’s face it, even among us English majors, no one actually ever read Proust. I did finally eat a madeleine, how- ever. Didn’t do anything for me)—so, it was one of those if- I-had-read-Proust-I’d-know-if-this-was-really-a-Proustian- moment-or-just-an-acid-flashback moments . . .
. . . and suddenly I was four years old, and skipping down the street with my father.
It was on 212th Street in the Bronx, around the corner from DeKalb Avenue, where we lived; the light was that su- perreal, late-afternoon, slanting yellow light that exists only in New York, the sidewalk warm from the afternoon sun, the shadows long and soft-edged, the air sweet with the summer smell of baseball-card bubble gum, and I was hand-in-hand with my dad, skipping down the hill from the El-train tracks where the Number Four ran, and my father, in the fedora he wore even with short sleeves in summertime, was skipping too, until some woman appeared from around the corner, and my father suddenly stopped skipping. I insisted that he continue, I implored him—somehow, it was essential to my four-year-old world that we not stop just because people were looking—but he would not abide. He walked slowly and nodded hello to the woman, and after she passed, he began skipping again, but my heart wasn’t in it anymore, and as we turned the corner from the bright sunlight into the dark shade of DeKalb Avenue, something was lost that I would never get back.
Until this moment.
So there we are, me in a suit, Max in jeans and a T-shirt, and Junior Wells in a blue Camaro, and Max is pleading with me to start dancing. . . .
. . . and so we do, long-stepping up the street like two stoners in an old R. Crumb comic, and for as many times as you’ve listened to Martha Reeves and the Vandellas sing “Dancing in the Street” on your oldies station in the last forty years, who else but a three-year-old could actually get you doing it, in broad daylight, on a Tuesday afternoon, in front of people wearing actual shoes and ties? When a child turns three, he becomes a unique sprite, an indomitable spirit, capable of teaching you, like no one else can, that summer’s here and the time is right for dancing in the streets. (By the way, did you ever wonder what a “Vandella” is? Turns out Martha Reeves, who was a secretary at Motown Records but got called in to record a single because Mary Wells didn’t show up for a session, made up the name. It’s a combination of Van Dyke Street, near her home in Detroit, and a tribute to her idol and fellow Detroit singer Della Reese. Van-Della. I didn’t know that.) How I came to learn this lesson—the lesson of how to truly give up your dignity and your sense of control, how to truly see the world through the eyes of your child—is the central theme of this book. Or maybe it’s a little left of central. The central theme is how Real Men get turned into Real Dads—and once they’re there, why they’re so good at it (and how they just might survive it).
Because let’s face it. If you’re a new parent, there’s going to be a time when you and your wife are pushing the stroller at one of those stores with ridiculous names like Buy Buy Baby or Toddleknockers or Cutsie Pootsies, or at the drug- store waiting for some perky cashier to get the code for the Suburban Subdivision Size package of Pampers, and you both look bedraggled since you’ve been up all night for the last three nights because the only way the baby will sleep is if you’re walking the floor singing “Baby Love” (by the way, never sing your baby a song you really like: All dads are tempted to do that. But let’s say you sing “Happy Together” to your baby one night, and it makes her stop crying. You and your wife will develop a religious belief in The Power Of That Song. So now, in the Who Gets Up With The Baby game, you’re suddenly the patsy, because every time the baby cries, your wife will say, “Honey, go in and sing ‘Happy Together.’” And it may seem sweet to sing to your little love bundle, “Me and you, and you and me, no matter how they tossed the dice, it had to be”—but trust me, on your four hundredth time through, at four in the morning, you will curse the fact that The Turtles were ever born. On the other hand, did you ever hear Frank Zappa’s version of that? It’s on the “Live at the Fillmore” album. Turns out Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan, the founders of The Turtles, played with Zappa in the Mothers of Invention for awhile, and for fun they all sang it together in concert. After Frank Zappa was at- tacked in England by the irate boyfriend of a fan, the band stopped touring for awhile, and Volman and Kaylan left to become Flo and Eddie. I always thought Flo was a woman, but Flo was actually Mark Volman. It’s from his goofy Sum- mer of Love nickname, the Phlorescent Leech. Phlo became Flo. See, that’s the other advantage of a book just for guys. We know that we like to talk about these things, because they are important. Like what’s a Vandella. Women call these unnecessary diversions, and think we talk about them just to avoid talking about other stuff—like, say, what we’re feeling. But really, isn’t it fascinating to know that the background vo- cals on Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart” are really done by the original “Happy Together” guys Flo and Eddie? I bet you didn’t know that).
So there you are, both looking all bedraggled and stringy- haired in the drugstore, and your wife has that parent-badge of dried baby cheese-up on her T-shirt just above her left boob, and you chuckle for a second until you realize that you do too, and what little hair you have looks like someone put a Brillo pad through a blender, and you look over and see some Fabulous Couple on a Fabulous Date, the kind of dates you used to go on, with women in short black skirts, buying a pack of cigarettes—oh, God, remember cigarettes? Don’t get me started on all the terribly healthy things we have to do just because we have kids. Once, I fell asleep in the backseat of a car on the way to New York City, and when I woke up I realized my friend’s four-year-old, sitting in a car seat next to me, had reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out a Camel Light and was EATING it, and even that didn’t get me to quit, but one look at my little boy’s eyes and the smokes were gone forever (well, I still sneak one when his mom’s out of town, but that doesn’t count)— so the Fabulous Couple is buying their Marlboro Lights, and she tosses her impossibly silky hair back, and in mid- toss she catches your eye for a millisecond and then looks away—and in that millisecond, you wonder, how did I go from that life to this one?
Easy. It’s because no one ever showed you a three- year-old.
To understand this, you have to go back to the cave once more. Let’s posit that there are two tribes: One is genetically predisposed to take their three-year-olds out in public, and one is not. The tribe that lets young couples see three-year- olds allows them into a spectacle no childless couple is ready for: the unstoppable force, the incredible energy, the astounding stubbornness, the voice that ranges between the decibel level of a jet plane (“your outside voice”), a jack- hammer (“your inside voice”), and the margarita blender at a beach bar (“whispering”). They cannot imagine the unbe- lievable joy and wonder you feel when you are reading to your child at night, and he falls asleep, tucked safe and secure and peaceful under your arm. They cannot compre- hend the sheer exhilaration that a child feels when he knows you are about to tickle him, the open-mouthed, open-hearted glee; or the sheer exhilaration you feel when you finish tickling him and he collapses, giggling and de- lighted, in your arms, tears streaming down his face from laughter, tears streaming down yours from sheer gratitude for this moment. They cannot comprehend the fact that, for one year, there is a human being who actually believes in his heart that when Daddy kisses a boo-boo, it makes it bet- ter. Or, even more unbelievably, that it actually DOES make it better. They cannot fathom your most fervent hope in life, hope that his belief in your healing powers will stay, stay just one more sweet day.
The young childless couple cannot imagine any of this. They can hear only the screeching demand for the most inane things:
“I want to close the door! NO! I WANNA CLOSE IT! YOU CLOSED IT! NOOOOOOO! I WANNA CLOSE IT!”
They see the embarrassed parent trying to quell this hur- ricane: “Sammy, how do you ask? Can you ask nicely?”
“I WANNA CLOSE THE DOOR! LET ME CLOSE IT NOW! NOW! NOW! (Please.)”
They see the parent, accepting this as a victory, even though he knows, in his heart, that in caveman days there were no doors.
If you have been following the sociobiological argument, which I know you were because it had sex in it, then you will understand that this tribe will clearly die out very soon. Because the young couple, exposed to the vicissitudes of life with a three-year-old, will be much less likely to ever decide to procreate.
They might take up another hobby, which in those days would be, say, hitting rocks with a stick—which is where baseball came from. Baseball was invented by people who decided not to have children, and thus had endless hours to watch other people stand in a field and scratch their pri- vate parts. People with children only have a few moments to spare, so they need faster-moving sports. NASCAR is for people with children. You look, you see people driving and taking a lot of left turns, you get it, you can go back in the kitchen and deal with that screaming you just heard, and if there’s something good, like a car crash, they’ll re- play it all day anyway, so you won’t miss anything.
Of course, people with three-year-olds do congregate— they just go places with other parents of three-year-olds. It’s the leper colony theory. Only those afflicted will enter these gates, along with the occasional missionary (in this world, known as au pairs).
Leper colonies for three-year-olds go by names like Gym- boree, or Tiny Stars, or Bouncearama—big rooms filled with colorful mats and gym equipment and swinging ropes and balance beams, all heavily padded like an insane asylum for toddlers, which is exactly what they are. You let thirty or so three-year-olds loose in one of these joints, and it resembles the inside of one of those Electron Accelerator Colliders they spent our money on at college instead of building a new gym.
This is the proving ground that tests the mettle of the older parent, because most of the parents you see are either much younger than you, and eyeing you suspiciously—or they’re grandparents, and eyeing you as though you might be one of them. So to prove your true parenthood, you chase around after your toddler as long as you can—in my case, 75 seconds is the going record—and then you collapse on one of the padded couches, shamed by the screech of your toddler across a crowded gym: “DADDY! COME PLAY WITH ME SOME MORE! NO SITTING DOWN! DADDY!!!”
You look at your watch. Thank God. Only one hour un- til nap time.
Yours, of course. He won’t crash for another day and a half.
Those of you raising your hands to ask, “Wait a second, I thought it was the Terrible Twos, not the Terrible Threes”— well, you’ve hit on one of the great mysteries of life. Namely, where did three-year-olds get enough money to pay a press agent? Clearly, the concept of the Terrible Twos is something created spitefully by three-year-olds, the way Republicans re- named Democrats “tax-and-spend liberals” before creating the biggest budget deficits in history. It’s all PR. The Repub- licans did it via the Fox News Channel (actually, Fox calling itself Fair and Balanced is, in and of itself, a pretty three- year-old view of the world). But I’ve carefully watched the three-year-old equivalent of the Fox News Channel—it’s called Playhouse Disney—and it doesn’t seem to carry an anti-twoish bias. (Although I did overhear this from a three- year-old on Disney: “Are you twoish? That’s OK, some of my best friends are twoish.”)
No, the three-year-old’s press agency, the one that cre- ated the myth of the Terrible Twos, was created like this:
“I NEED A PRESS AGENT! I NEED A PRESS AGENT!”
“No, honey, you can’t have a press agent. You’re three. That’s for grownups.”
“I NEED A PRESS AGENT! I NEED A PRESS AGENT! GENERAL SCREAMING! MIND-NUMBING SHRIEKS! EAR- PIERCING WAILS!”
“Now, is that any way to ask?”
“I NEED A PRESS AGENT! I NEED A PRESS AGENT! GENERAL SCREAMING! MIND-NUMBING SHRIEKS! EAR- PIERCING WAILS! (Please.)”
“That’s better. OK, we’ll sign you up with Dewey Cheat- ham and Howe.”
“NO! DAT TOO DOMESTIC! I NEED MORE INTERNA- TIONAL EXPOSURE! WAAAAAAA!”
And so, when the rest of us were not paying attention— just like the liberals under Reagan—a New Morning in Amer- ica dawned, and a new way of looking at the universe was foisted off on an unsuspecting public, and two-year-olds got stuck with the moniker of the “Terrible Twos.” So parents of two-year-olds, especially older parents, although stretched to the very limit of their ability to stay awake and run after a toddler, said, you know, this is not so bad. I can handle it. Hey, I’m even pretty good at this!
And then they were three.
For those of you raising your hands to ask, “If it’s so dif- ficult for an older parent to raise a three-year-old, why, at the age of 49, did you decide to quit your high-paying job, fire the babysitter, and become a full-time dad?”—Well, my friend, thank you for the exposition and transition, for thereby hangs the tale.