The Greatest Man I Never Knew

Are you ready to hold your little girl?

Eight words that signaled an unprecedented shift in my life. I was no longer just some guy. I wasn’t going-to-be-a-papa. Those words meant that I had joined the league of Fathers.

I didn’t join a fraternity in college. I was never part of any clubs in high school. Being a member of a group never particularly appealed to me. However, sharing the name “Dad” with millions of other men was all right in my book. I try to steer clear of the term “daddy” due to disturbing connotations from adult films and creepy old men with money in their pockets and young models on their arms. No thank you.

The third Sunday of every June is Father’s Day. In just a few weeks, I will be celebrating my eleventh. Strangely, there isn’t much hoopla surrounding the holiday. It didn’t become a national holiday until 1972. Mother’s Day, on the other hand, has been a national holiday since 1914. This is no surprise. Mothers become just that as soon as they learn they are pregnant. We dads often (even in our own eyes) don’t become fathers until we hold our children for the first time. To put it simply, we’re behind the curve.

There has been a shift over the decades in a positive direction, I suppose. The push to celebrate Father’s Day was originally proposed by a woman named Sonora Smart Dodd who was raised, along with her five siblings, by a widowed father. She recognized back in 1909 that a father can do whatever a mother can. I’m not saying we can do it well, but we can come close, by God. I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I can braid my daughter’s hair. Granted, the braid falls out in roughly thirty-eight seconds, but there is a braid there for most of a minute.

With that said, there is a disturbing trend that still exists today. Go to any public men’s restroom in a restaurant or store. Look for the baby-changing table. I promise you, if it is not a federal building that must have one by law as of October 2016, you will be hard-pressed to find one. More times than I can count, I had to change my daughter’s diaper as a baby by first wiping up the disgusting bathroom floor in the handicapped stall and then laying down a mat I had to bring with me. Whenever I would ask these businesses why they didn’t have changing stations in men’s rooms, they always responded with an off-hand comment about them not being necessary in both bathrooms. Translation: Men are not deemed caretakers.

Likewise, taking my young daughter to run errands often resulted in receiving some semblance of a question from at least a couple women: “Oh, so Dad has to babysit today, huh?” I am far from some “snowflake” who needs a “safe space” from hurtful words. But I will admit that this question always irked me. Would that question be asked to a mother? No. A mother is watching her children. Caring for them. A man is seen as babysitting his children. The same rings true for fixing a child’s hair. My mad braiding skills notwithstanding, I legitimately rocked a pony tail like no one’s business (back when my daughter didn’t insist on having her hair down in her eyes at all times—now I know how my parents felt during my Grunge stage in high school). Women would look honestly surprised and tell me that I had done a good job “learning from mom” as though I could never have figured out how to pull strands of hair through an elastic band on my own without somehow decapitating the child. Translation to both of these examples: Men are not deemed caretakers.

I used to take great offense to these things. I used to ask myself, “How, in this modern day, are fathers seen as less than nurturing?” Seen as incompetent and uninvolved with child-rearing. Why?

The answer is simple: We need to do better, gentlemen. How many children are raised wholly by single mothers? How many fathers walk out of their children’s lives? How many fathers make other plans on the days they are supposed to have custodial visitations? How many fathers insist on being at war with their exes who happen to be the mothers of their children? How many fathers can’t list their children’s favorite colors or passions? What are the names of your children’s best friends? What size shoes do your children wear? What are they learning in school? How do you lower your children’s fevers?

A brutal reality was evident to me a few months ago. My daughter’s school held its annual Father/Daughter Dance. It’s an event that allows little girls to put on beautiful dresses and corsages to be taken on a date with the first man they truly love—Dad. As I stood in the gymnasium, I observed over a dozen fathers looking at their phones instead of their daughters. A little girl’s first date. A father standing with his face cast down into the technology in his hand instead of at the young lady who only wanted Dad to “see what I can do.” All around me, I saw fathers failing without even realizing it. To be there and to be present are very different things.

I am certainly not a perfect father. I could do better. I rarely take my daughter with me to pick up prostitutes or rob banks, but I could do better. Can you?

Happy Father’s Day, fellas. Let’s earn it.

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In My Life

“Sometimes, you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory.” –Dr. Seuss

It’s fascinating to me how relevant a children’s author can be. This is a hand-written quote that I keep on the door of my fridge. My daughter brought it home from school during Dr. Seuss week. Like so many things she has brought home from school, I treat it like a treasure. Sure, I keep the graded papers for spelling tests on which she got above perfect scores with the additional bonus words. But the best treasures are those little pieces of art that make it back. Dried, creepy macaroni faces and collages. Paintings done entirely with her finger- or handprints. Beauty, creation, and miniscule parts of her weaving them together.

I’ve been looking at this Dr. Seuss quote a lot recently. In two days, my young daughter turns eleven. She will no longer be a little girl. She will have graduated to a pre-teen. I already see the changes happening with her taste in music and personality. Where I used to be the person to whom she felt most connected, her life is beginning to revolve around her friends and those things outside my house. I can accept it. But I want to write this so she might have a treasure of her own upon which she can look when she’s older. My memories. My valuable moments.

Dear Madison,

   About a year ago I found the pair of underwear you hid in your closet. You’d obviously sharted just a little in them. Out of embarrassment, you must have tucked them in the corner so I wouldn’t find them in the garbage. That was not my favorite surprise gift. However, like a gentleman, I simply washed them and put them back in your drawer. You learned a true life lesson. You once drew a picture that said, “Everyone poops.” Way to keep it one hundred. There’s a whole book dedicated to that idea. The book that you won’t find is “Everyone sharts.” Never be ashamed. I have a much more intimate relationship with your fecal matter than you’ll ever understand. You were a shaker and mover back in your day. More than once, during diaper changes, you kicked poo into my mouth. Every time, I thought, “I can’t wait until she is potty-trained.” Those few-minute increments we had, though, are sometimes missed. You don’t need me like that anymore.

When you were a baby, I’d get home from work late at night and your mother would hand you to me immediately. You’d often been up crying for hours. To say your mother looked good would be a horribly untrue statement. Beetlejuice was before your time, but google it one day. Your mother had that hair style down pat. She would go to lie down for sleep and it was my responsibility to calm you. At the time, coming home to a shrieking infant was less than ideal. I had to pace with you for a bit, your head by my shoulder, causing partial deafness in my ear. I’d thump your diaper firmly while bouncing you and whispering, “Shhhhh…,” over and again. Eventually, you’d stop wailing and we would curl up in the recliner and I’d sing to you while we rocked. Looking back, those were magical moments. You’d stare at me while we swayed in the chair and then you’d fall into a deep sleep. Completely content in my arms. I couldn’t tell you the last time you fell asleep on me. Now I watch you have that with the cats. You understand the power of those moments without even realizing it yet. You’re a great mom.

This morning, while I drove you to school, I interrupted Taylor Swift to bust out a few bars of The Muffin Man and Little Bunny Foo Foo. You looked at me with that face. While thinking about valuable moments, those two songs came to mind. We used to crank those bad boys in the car. The girl working the Dairy Queen drive-thru window got to witness a live concert years ago. You and I were in the moment. We were feeling some Muffin Man more than usual and we weren’t about to let that jam get away from us. Full voice. Heads bopping. We never even broke the poor girl’s gaze. You went with that glorious abandon right beside me. I hope we made her day. I know you made mine.

I can recognize the difference between Mozart and Beethoven only after countless hours of watching puppets move to their music on your Baby Einstein videos. I begged for the day that you would graduate to something different. Unfortunately, that graduation led to Thomas, Percy, Hiro, and all the other trains. Like any parent, I wondered how a child could be so enraptured by watching the same movie for the seven-millionth time. I didn’t fully grasp how incredible it was that you were loving something that much. Maybe it was jealousy. Now, when I pass Thomas and his friends in the toy aisle, I give a little nod. We might not be your first choice for entertainment anymore, but we know what it is to be loved unconditionally by you.

You still haven’t figured out the concept of closing your door when you’re changing. I have to make a conscious effort to not look anywhere in the direction of your room if I walk down the hallway to use the restroom. God forbid I see you in your underwear. You’re becoming a young lady who wears training bras now. I accept your aversion to letting boys see you in any state of undress. I expect you to remember this in high school and college as well. But there was a time when I had to dress you. I had it down to an art and there wasn’t a onesie out there that I couldn’t conquer. But what I wouldn’t give to go back for just one day and have those few minutes of dressing time. I might take my time instead of timing myself. During those instants, you would stare at my face and study me while I rambled on about what we were going to do that day. You might not have understood me, but you were an excellent listener.

You don’t ask if you can stay in my bed anymore. It was a battle when you were young. You used to sneak in early in the morning. Sometimes I’d make you go back to your room. Sometimes I’d pretend I didn’t notice so I could smile while fake-snoring. Now you have a full-size bed and prefer to sleep with the cats since they aren’t allowed in my bed. I get it. They’re cooler than me. But I still get to tuck you in for now. Occasionally, you won’t walk to your bed on your own and you make me pick you up and carry you. You’re not light anymore, but it’s worth it to get to carry you while you laugh. And I appreciate you fighting me when I try to kiss your ears. That little girl who giggles at my scruff still makes me smile. I’m happy she’s in there, if only for a very short time.

The point is that you’ve given me so many valuable moments. I wish I would have recognized some of them before they became memories. I look forward to making so many more with you as you become this amazing young lady.

Happy Birthday, Baby Girl!!

Paperback Writer

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

It’s a simple enough question. We’re asked that by teachers, parents, and grandparents all throughout our childhood. I still ask myself that sometimes at 37. In grade school, I wanted to be an archaeologist. Dinosaurs were just cool. And what boy doesn’t like the thought of digging in the dirt to find hidden treasures and the bones of ancient creatures? For a brief period, I considered being a stand-up comedian. This was mostly because I was the obnoxious class clown. My music teacher gave me part of a class to stand up and do whatever I wanted if I would just shut the hell up for the rest of the week. I won’t lie. My impressions of Goofy being beaten up by Batman were pretty on point. You know, if Batman existed before Bruce Wayne ever hit puberty.

Junior high and high school brought about the writer. College then changed the writer. In my early twenties, the writer took a back seat to Jagerbombs and Miller Lite. At 26, my daughter was born. Everything took a back seat to being a father. I wrote a little here and there, but never with any decent amount of vigor. I chose to see the world through the eyes of a writer, but one who pens children’s books and whose main character unfolds daily in front of his eyes. My story was one of wonder every time my daughter hit a new milestone or discovered magic.

It wasn’t until a short while ago that I made the decision to focus on putting pen to paper again. I have a notebook in which I jot ideas when they arise. My daughter has caught on to this. She asks me what I thought about whenever she sees me put my hands on the black leather binding. When I drive her to school every Monday, she inquires as to what this week’s piece is about. I adore these times. I get to share a little of what’s going on in my mind as well as any facts I learned in my research. I’m grateful to her for at least putting up the front of being interested in the physiological aspects of tears and laughter. Like a pro, she interjects with random “hmms” and “ohs.” Right before turning up whatever Shawn Mendes song just came on the radio. That guy has her in chains.

Last week, I picked Madison up from school and she informed me that she had started writing a story. Chapter one was finished and I was regaled with the beginning of the tale of Shadow and Glamor, two sisters who had been separated as babies when their parents split up. Mom kept Shadow. Glamor was taken away by Dad. Neither sister knew the other existed. Later in life, Shadow and her mother moved to a different town and Shadow started at a new school full of bullies. A girl stepped in to help Shadow with the female bullies and the two girls became best friends. Spoiler alert: The friendly girl was Glamor. The story is written in the form of a screenplay, complete with cues for the characters to sit or fall. Because Glamor was a mystery character, her name was listed as “????” until the climactic finale.

Mystery. Drama. Intrigue. One hell of a hook.

I’ve been proud of my daughter a multitude of times throughout her life. Parenting in the early years is filled with moments of joyful pride in our children. Learning to crawl. Learning to walk. Learning to speak. Learning the alphabet. When they say “please” or “thank you” for the first time without being prompted. Graduating from a baby in diapers to a child in cotton glory. A perfect score on that test at school.

None of those moments hit me quite as hard as listening to the story of Shadow and Glamor. There was an urgency and thrill in her reading of it. She was expanding on things during the course of narrating the tale. This wasn’t a milestone that I read about in the What to Expect books. This was the forging of a world through pure imagination.

Like a lot of children in today’s world, Madison got hooked on YouTube videos. Videos of other children playing with their toys and unfolding adventures of their own creation. It was slightly disappointing to see her so absorbed in the imaginations of others while (as I incorrectly assumed) not using her own. However, I realize I have a movie collection that rivals that of Family Video. And I too watch of lot of videos online. My videos are slightly different and would never be found on YouTube, but sometimes there are toys involved there also.

Now I see that my daughter is not only using her imagination. She incorporates real life into her drama. And not only the fun parts. Her story is speckled with harsh realities. Broken homes. Loss of family. Relentless bullying. And underlying all of these realities is hope. She is a laugher. A crier. A dreamer. A writer.

As parents, we want more than anything to leave behind a legacy for our children. For some, that means leaving behind money or a business. For others, that means instilling them with religious or cultural beliefs. If we’re lucky enough, we get to see tiny flashes of those legacies shine through before we leave this world. My legacy? I want my daughter to look at this world as the wonderful, beautiful disaster that it is. I want her to realize that hope is not an abstract concept. Shadow and Glamor understand.

Do You Believe In Magic?

This piece was written originally two Christmases ago. I apologize to the handful of readers who have read this before. But I did say in my first piece on Of Vice And Zen that some of my old work would make its way onto this blog. Now it has a real title and a fun picture! As I sat down to write this week’s publication, I realized that I didn’t  have everything just the way I wanted it. Unlike my underwear and socks that will be put away days after I finished doing laundry, I want my writing to be completed wholly. In addition, I took my daughter to the doctor today (nothing serious), and experienced a moment that reminded me of this piece. She took control of the appointment, talking to the doctor in her own words. A helpless child was not standing in the room with me. I was in the company of a growing woman. It was a breath-taking and humbling moment. So, without further ado (I’ve always wanted to have a reason to say that)…

“How does that train not wake up his parents?”

This is heavy stuff. A question posed to me by my nine year old daughter while we decorate the Christmas tree and watch The Polar Express. This question inevitably leads to awkward answers we parents have to carefully supply to maintain the illusion of magic. Answers that often only lead to more questions and more awkward answers. Which then lead to more questions. I think I handled it like a pro. Vague, calculated responses that made me think a future in politics could be lucrative, assuming I actually knew anything about current events outside of my newsfeed. Don’t get me wrong; I would unfortunately rock any discussion concerning the status of the Kardashians or wildly inappropriate memes, but I’m not sure that knowledge would effectively run a country.

Regardless, I digress. What this random question triggered in me was a line of thought that brought a sadness. I came to the realization that this might be the last year this beautiful young lady believes in Santa. The rumors have already begun in her class. They revolve around rational thoughts leading to suspicions that their parents might very well be horrible liars who have manipulated them into being good (at least for the last couple months) by threatening the disappointment and passive aggressive wrath of a bearded fat man who spends an absorbent amount of time playing with toys and tiny slave workers.

Sadly, once the myth of Santa falters, soon follows the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the understanding that spinach can make one strong like Popeye, and the acceptance that Dad really did make that quarter disappear behind the ear. There goes the magic. I thought about this with immense disappointment. The passing from being a child of wonder to a person of skepticism.  But is that really the case? Not necessarily.

I smiled while I watched her put the last few ornaments on the tree. She has so many more moments of magic ahead of her. Are these moments about mythical people or creatures? No. But they will be no less powerful. They require an amazing recipe of hope, faith, joy, and unbridled belief in something bigger and far more mysterious in the world. I’ll touch on some of them. Feel free to add to the list your own magical moments post-fairy tale apocalypse.

  1. Although she’s already begun on a beginner level, she will discover her ability to cook, I mean really cook, her own dinner. Just a first step in becoming her own person who does not need to rely on Dad or Mom to provide sustenance. Small step? Perhaps, but there will come a moment when that kitchen will cease to be a bunch of cabinets and instead will have evolved into a playground of self-importance. How the magic will shine when I first taste one of the worst breakfasts I’ve ever had while smiling and nodding. Maybe I’ll go all out and do the whole circular belly rub to really drill the point home.
  2. As a father, I try to avoid thoughts of boys being in her life. Unfortunately, despite my best efforts, I suspect that she is beginning to realize that boys do not, in fact, have cooties. And someday, far before I’m ready, she’s going to find her first crush. The boy she draws hearts for. She’ll put his name inside that heart along with her own and a mathematical symbol. I would prefer the symbol be subtraction, but I don’t believe I’ve attended enough church in my life for that particular prayer to come true. That time, that first crush, is nothing short of magical. You and I, we each had one. Who was yours?
  3. The first real friends-date with no parents. Often, this is a time for a movie. She and her girlfriends will go to whatever awful movie is all the hype in the theater at the time. I like to think I raised her better and that she’d force them to appreciate Star Wars: Episode Nine, but those little teens are persuasive. However, the movie itself is pointless. This date is not about watching a movie. It is about freedom from those pesky parents. She will feel like a trusted and independent member of society. She need not know that Dad will probably be a block away with binoculars.
  4. If she’s anything like her father, she will explore the boundaries of the English language. I’m not referring to those words with multiple syllables. No. Those four letter words that often require random asterisks in written form so my grandmother doesn’t have a stroke while simultaneously shaking her head and planning an extra visit to church to pray for her grandson’s eternal soul. Those words have power. Using those words for the first time is to control the universe. Friends may ogle in surprise. Strangers who overhear them will look away in disgust (especially if they’re wonderful ladies like my grandmother). Parents will immediately become war-time torturers and interrogators at their mention. “I’ll take the soap out of your mouth as soon as you tell me who taught you that word!” Certainly, she won’t have learned it from Dad. Those words are nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, and even entire sentences if used properly. Make me proud, baby girl, as soon you turn eighty and I’m gone.
  5. I will hold her arm as she walks stoically down an aisle surrounded by friends and family. She will look up and see the man she loves take a breath and wipe away a tear while he gazes at her. They will both say some things before he hugs her tightly. There will be no kissing at my daughter’s wedding. That day, that moment will make her believe in fairy tales again.
  6. A doctor or nurse will someday place a child on her chest. This child will have been conceived in a way that my church-going grandmother will understand better than me, as my daughter will have never so much as kissed her husband. But that child, that new life, will be a greater present than any given by ole Kris Kringle. Faith, joy, fear, hope, love. These are the center of magic.
  7. My daughter will decorate a tree with that child, much older now. She will talk about Santa and write his name on gift tags after the child goes to sleep. She will bake cookies and put them out on the coffee table to be eaten by herself (throwing them away would be both a waste and a dangerous breach of security should the child check the garbage in the morning). Diet be damned. Most importantly, she will again know the wonder of the mythical man who brought her so much joy in her youth, this time from a different viewpoint.

Yes, I left certain moments out. I did this for two reasons. First, as I said, you should fill in your own. Secondly, some moments are not meant for a father to recognize due to his daughter’s lack of anything resembling romance, and the fact that all men in her life will be eunuchs.

I don’t know much, but I know this: I will hold onto the childhood magic as long as I can. However, when it goes, I won’t be sad. Look at this life, baby girl. Look closely. Pick a card. Any card.

Have You Seen Me Lately?

Tennis balls can act as makeshift silencers on the ends of guns. However, they also leave behind small yellow or green fibers that can be traced later by investigators. These are the types of things you learn when you love the art of criminal investigation and have been binge watching Forensic Files on Netflix. Forensics is a fascinating subject to me. It amazes me that everything we touch and everywhere we go, we leave something behind.

I once farted in an elevator before getting off. That was some serious trace evidence. At least the woman’s face suggested that as I exited and she entered. It would seem that she is not a fan of surprises. I hope her husband remembers that for any birthday celebrations.

My cats are pros at leaving behind forensic evidence. Perhaps they understand my appreciation for it. I can never murder a hooker in my apartment. Cat hair everywhere. Those assholes will have me in prison in a matter of days. One cat likes to eat too quickly and then leave half-digested evidence on the carpet. In the middle of the night. In the middle of the hallway. Where I walk sleepily in the dark to use the restroom. Where I will swear profusely while washing the evidence off the bottom of my foot. The other cat has what can only be a serious gastro-intestinal issue. I need only to breathe to determine that he has used the litter box within the last twenty minutes. And scratched the outside plastic of the litter box instead of covering the clues with the freaking litter because I raise stupid cats.

Right now, on my bathroom vanity mirror, there is a star, a heart, and a smiley face with the tongue sticking out. I discovered them when I took my shower today. They weren’t there when I stepped in. After the steam collected, I realized that my daughter had used her fingers to leave behind something to make me smile. I could have been an adult and wiped them away. I think they’ll stay there for a while. I’ve been awoken multiple times to myself hacking as a lone hair from my daughter’s head has found its way into my esophagus. She likes to jump onto my bed and talk to me about the latest characters she created on Animal Jam. Those little hairs always make me grin after the initial panic of staring death in the face. The trash can in her room always has a story to tell. Often, that story involves her sneaking an apple when I’m not looking and ravaging it in her bedroom. I don’t mind apples. When I find a boy in her room, I’ll put use to some tennis balls.

I’ve left behind a lot of evidence in my time. Sometimes I even get to solve a mystery.  Waking up Saturday morning to the empty remnants of a previously unopened box of Girl Scout cookies. This forensic trail generally leads to the vodka being much lower than it was when I got home from work Friday night. In my younger, more virile years, my bedroom was a wonderland of evidence pointing to poor decisions. A woman’s sock. A condom wrapper. And for some reason, a ski mask. Some mysteries are better not solved.

The truth is, the best things we leave behind can’t always be observed under a microscope or even with any of the five senses. Everywhere we go. Everything we do. We leave behind a part of ourselves. I held the door for a random attractive woman at a gas station years ago. She smiled, thanked me, and touched my arm for just a moment. I never got her name. I never saw her again. But she pops into my mind occasionally. It feels good every time. With just that two second interaction, she left something behind with a stranger. The idea of it is daunting.

I ask myself often what it is that I’m leaving behind. How did I affect someone’s life or day without even knowing it? When I meet someone, will I have a positive or negative impact? When I die, how will I be remembered? I think this blog is my way of trying to control a little of that. I am in no way a great philosopher. I have no delusions about changing the world with my writing. But just maybe I can help someone look at something differently. Maybe I can just make someone laugh when he or she is having a particularly bad day. Maybe my daughter will read my writing one day and understand her father a little more intimately than a lot of children ever “know” their parents.

Welcome to my crime scene.