I never intended to be the father of three children. I know this because I can return to my twenties in the playlist of my mind and this is what I see.
My 20-year-old self sees my 50-year-old self working in a long, narrow greenhouse with plants and a narrow wooden table reaching down its center. On this table is a row of manual typewriters and in each machine is a novel I am translating, each into a different language. The Italian typewriter has only the 21 letters of that alphabet; the German machine has an umlaut key. I move from typewriter to typewriter as I work on each translation.The room is filled with a tick-tick-tack sound viscerally remembered only by a few people now.
This vision of the past looking into the future (stay with me here) includes bonsai trees, a gardner to take care of them, multiple espresso machines, and strangely, no children and no wives. My 20-year-old self just plain forgot about people when shaping its future, and saw only a row of typewriters and a lot of words in different languages.
Giving life to a child is profound, doing it three times is profounder, and trying it again in your fifties is insane. Remember that David Letterman once said, ‘By the time my kid’s old enough to go to jail, I’ll be dead.’ There’s a grim logic to that, and guys my age with young kids try to make it go away by saying things like ‘we’re more fit than our parents were.’ Or ‘we do more stuff with our kids than our parents did.’ How can anybody be an effective father (picking my own example) to children aged 26, 22 and six months? Dads like me who attempt to do the father thing across time zones and emotional divides might well be kidding ourselves.
Having a far younger half-sibling has been strange for my older children. I know at times for all of us it’s been like being in a bad Ben Stiller movie. There’s emotional heavy lifting as we bridge the gap of years and places. I will tell you this: I can’t be the same dad now I was to them.
It was a vastly different world in 1986 when my daughter was born. We were part of the Park Slope, Brooklyn baby boom, sleeplessly tromping around quaint neighborhoods with bright eyed infants, avoiding the dangerous blocks where gentrification had not yet seeped, practicing Ferber sleep methods at night, by day painting our fixer-upper brownstones. I spent weeks sanding smooth my daughter’s changing table/dresser combo bought unfinished from Gothic Cabinet Craft on Third Ave in the City. I still feel bad about this: When we took her sledding in the park she cried hard when she fell over into the snow. She was barely two when we moved to Los Angeles. She quickly discovered things like the backyard garden hose and would call out ‘Daddeee, I need the weateeeee’ when she wanted to use it. Chinese food was ‘tiny food.’ Boots were ‘boofs.’ She loved people, always looking forward to when we had a ‘parby.’ (Party.)
She doesn’t like it much when I remember the early days. She doesn’t like me thinking of her as a baby. But I’m not trying to backtrack, infantalize her or engage in nostalgia. Recalling these tracks from my playlist is a way to bridge now and then. There is a context to my fatherhood. It begins with her. She taught me what I know. I try to remember that knowledge every day, sometimes using the vehicle of silly stories.
In 1990, when my second child was born, a son, I was writing television and film scripts by the pound. Then one day I stared at a blank screen and couldn’t do it any more. Also, we needed money. I got a series of jobs that took me far away on the road, working for television newsmagazines, or working far into the night, clocking in graveyard shifts for a local news station. I was an absent father in many ways, but paradoxically my son and I became very close. I think it began at his birth. He was born in casual California, and the delivering doctor was shooting the breeze about football scores when he remembered to catch the baby coming out. They checked the baby’s vitals, handed him to me, and left. I held him for three hours. I believe that bonding informed our later adventures of mountain biking together in the Santa Monica Mountains, sneaking onto public school ballfields to shoot off rockets illegally, or talking about art, aesthetics and design. There’s still nobody else I’d rather walk around a museum with – his assessment of the work of any era is swift, brutal, accurate.
It was a formative time for both my older children when my first marriage splintered and frayed, and it is a black lake of pain that I gaze across as I attempt to connect then and now. I still have a notebook from those times and in it I wrote, ‘Marriage is biologically sound, morally necessary, and humanly impossible.’ I am wrong about that last part. Marriage is possible and fatherhood is a time machine. To sort it all out, I have these memory playlists from 1986 and 1990 that I keep playing on shuffle.
When my daughter was born I made the first phone call to her grandmother, who made a wild, animal noise of joy that was quite unlike her. There is a journal of my firstborn’s days, handwritten, lost in a night table drawer. There is a typewriter I forgot to take from my ex’s house. My son invented an imaginary machine called a Stubinator that could solve any problem. I have a book my daughter hand-wrote called I Love You Dad. She made a puzzle game that we tried to sell to a developer. I feel bad about her falling out of the sled in Prospect Park in 1987. I know things about them that they don’t know themselves, and they know things about me that I will never grasp.
Now is now, and I find a vast appreciation for the little things about our six month old. When I feel tenderness for him I wonder if I had the capacity for the same tenderness when I was an aggressive 27-year-old. Decades ago, was I able to appreciate the small moments?
I look back, I look forward, attempting to bridge the expanse with my playlists. They can’t do the job, of course, because while memory helps, it is largely procedural. My playlists tell me how to feed a baby, and diaper, and comfort. The playlists help me remember what the babies of 1986 and 1990 were like and what made them laugh. But the wisdom required of me now by my children must be made fresh every day. I must leap, and so must they.