Stepping out of the shower the other Saturday — itself a feat, showering, considering it’s overrated, even though my wife and I do Insanity at 5 o’freaking clock every other morning — I was shocked by the quietude. This house. This lovable yet inarguably small suburban domicile where two married, outspoken adults and one unmarried, outspoken 5-year-old spend most of their time. Silence. Naturally, I freaked. Had Dana and Apollo finally left me for a younger, cooler, more emotionally and financially stable model? Are they at the park? Had they been raptured?
Screw it. Picking up my phone (of course I had brought it into the bathroom with me), I launched my Bee Gees station. The lovely afternoon into which fate had somehow deposited me called for some mind-emptying song. “It’s OK,” I kept telling myself. “Everything’s alright.” You could almost say things were pretty great. I had running water, a roof over my head, and a freshly opened beer, and my family was safe (presumably). To the shimmying, rollercoastering groove of “Boogie Nights,” I contorted some limbs and my torso rhythmically while playing air-bass, my fortysomething-dude waistline serving as my four strings. I gently flicked my belly from the bottom up with my right index and ring fingers. B’duh b’der-der DER der, b’duh b’der DER-der. Before quickly stopping out of a mix of embarrassment and guilt — “How can you ‘dance’ when you know the world is falling apart?! You fat idiot!” — I realized I felt something I don’t think I’d felt in a long time. Could I have been happy?
The feeling wasn’t chemically induced, like when I drank a million beers while watching my favorite hockey team win the Stanley Cup in June. This was the real deal. Heeding the advice of an old Psychology Today listicle — “fake it ’til ya make it” — I had to force myself into the emotion, literally shuck and jive into it, because that’s pretty much all anyone can do these days: fake it ’til we make it. There’s just no shaking the past few years. Donald Trump, terrorism, natural disasters, racial divisions, World War III, yadda yadda — what a crappy time to be alive.
What an even crappier time to have a family. The kids themselves aren’t full of ish — most tots are just swell. It’s that they might not even live long enough to earn an A on a test or score a touchdown or have a crush or, if an adult doesn’t step in to separate Trump and Kim Jong-un soon, experience Christmas 2017. Talk about stress. If the kiddos do make it to 2018, they face the very real possibility they’ll be booted into the school-to-prison pipeline before they learn how to divide a fraction or crack their parental controls code. And it is this hulking, monstrous dread that will keep you from experiencing joy for longer than a split second. It’s also what will keep you awake all night long, to the point when you’ve got to crank open your laptop, and while trying to type as quietly as possible — your wife is asleep in bed next to you, and 5 a.m. comes around awfully quickly these days — you just write. As I said, yadda yadda.
Wrapping up my hair in a towel, I bent forward by the sink, where my phone lay. Onscreen was the cover of Too Hot to Handle, the 1977 Heatwave album with “Boogie Nights” on it. Having studied that artwork for hours as a lonely child when it first came out, I now sensed a convergence of my consciousness with the faux-infinity that art possesses. As that melting vinyl record on that melting street punctuated by that melting red fire hydrant has always seemed to exist, most of us have grown over the decades into adults, married with children, full-time jobs, road rage, and mortgages. Everything has changed except that artwork and that song and the zillions of other remainders of our easy, safe childhoods which are nearly inescapable and which have had the audacity to stay the same: movies, “new” clothes, songs, especially the songs. Art is miraculous, I thought. So infinite-seeming. And life is miraculous, too, my lucky childhood most of all. Would most of us want to go back to 1977 and be toddlers again in our old homes? Probably. Would any of us want to be 6 years old now? Anywhere? No way.
The artwork overwhelmed me as a boy, when my mind moved back and forth repeatedly from the mushy, yellowed fullness of the painting — “Wouldn’t your feet get stuck in that street if you walked down it?” “Wouldn’t that tree in the background be on fire instead of melting?” — to all of the fun my oldest brother was probably having every weekend at Heaven. The most popular disco in my childhood hometown was where Lenny and all of his bros would catch night fever night fever every weekend in the late 1970s and early ’80s. In my bath towel, I briefly wondered if my moves were as good as theirs (they were) before the guilt set in and froze me. As usual.
My wife says I haven’t been myself. No kidding. Along with the slow destruction of the world around us, Dana’s job was recently outsourced and Apollo got kicked out of pre-K at a facility owned by the same nonprofit for which my wife had been working. (Awkward!) The only three emotions I was capable of feeling were anger, sadness, and abject contentment. Any semblance of joy or happiness I quickly got rid of. To paraphrase Woody Allen, how can we be happy knowing so many people are suffering?
The other day, my wife handed back to me a copy of the day’s paper with a short news story she had circled in red ink. It was about a guy killed in a road rage incident. I extended my bottom lip and raised my eyebrows at her.
“You’re mean and short,” Dana said, probably not referring to my 5’10’’ frame, hopefully. “You’re not acting like yourself.”
And she’s right. I have been a little touchy. Part of me thinks it’s because I’m waking up at 5 o’freaking clock every other morning to do Insanity. But the real me knows it’s probably because I’m disappointed. Does anyone else feel let down that adulthood hasn’t been all security, warmth, and comfort, that it’s been more like bootcamp, double-bootcamp for me, considering I’m waking up at 5 o’freaking clock every other morning to do Insanity? And let’s be real. The highest office in the land is occupied by a sexist, racist, bigoted conman whose only accomplishment is having been born filthy rich. Life is only going to get harder over the next four years, harder for every normal, non-wealthy person and harder especially for my son. As a Black male, he’s going to be challenged anyway. Now I can’t help but feel that he’s doomed.
In Texas, kids are being kicked out of school for minor behaviors, ones that could easily be handled by teachers or administrators in the classroom, according to Texas Appleseed Project, a progressive statewide nonprofit. In 2015, Appleseed says, Black students were “close to three times more likely” than their white peers to be arrested or referred to juvenile probation for school-related behavior, with boys three times as likely to receive out-of-school suspensions as girls. Students who are suspended, expelled, or sent to an alternative school are “up to 10 times more likely to fail academically, be retained a grade, and drop out, and almost three times more likely to have contact with the juvenile justice system,” Appleseed says.
Thus begins the school-to-prison pipeline. “African-Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at more than five times the rate of whites,” according to a report by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit justice group.
To the racist assholes in my newsfeed who ask, “Why do so many Blacks kill each other?!,” the answer is that people are violent mostly with the people around them. Most whites live among whites, most Hispanics live among Hispanics, most Blacks live among Blacks. Note: Most predominantly Black neighborhoods are impoverished.
Now that the secretary-of-education post has been filled with a brainless, heartless she-demon, my baby boy won’t be able to meet his challenges with any sort of institutional support. The Cheeto in chief wants to eliminate all of that funding to build more fighter jets or something. Because all the world’s terrorists live in Terrortown and because we can take them on the way we took on the Nazis 70 years ago. (Not how it works anymore, pal.)
Even our most serious ballistic threat could be wiped from existence with about one one-millionth of our firepower. We can do better for our kids. And for us.
The Fort Worth school district is one of the worst for kids like mine. It was No. 1 for out-of-school suspensions in the state in 2015-2016, based on data provided by the Texas Education Agency and processed by Appleseed. Of Fort Worth’s 47,264 students, there were 4,294 out-of-school suspensions. By comparison, Austin levied 534 suspensions out of 45,682 students.
Kicking a kid out of school — even ones as young as pre-K — puts undue pressure on parents. Not everyone is as fortunate as I was when Apollo was being ushered to his principal’s office seemingly every other day. I could work at the coffee shop with free Wi-Fi around the corner while waiting for the inevitable phone call or text from either one of his teachers or the principal. “Hey, can you come get Apollo? He is acting up again.” The average parent cannot. He or she probably has only two 15-minute breaks per eight-hour shift and only so many sick/personal/vacation days, which isn’t nearly enough time to clock out, drive to the school, pick up the kid, and then watch him or her for the remainder of the day. And that doesn’t even include paying a sitter. Waiting every morning and afternoon for that call or text probably took 10 years off my life.
My wife and I admit that Apollo, by no fault of his own, is not your average kid. In his birth country of Ghana, he was placed in his orphanage with a partially collapsed lung due to illness and four hernias, one of which made his scrotum look as if it were trying to smuggle a banana. When Dana and I adopted him about a year later, he wasn’t in any better shape. At all. That neglect can do serious damage, consciously and unconsciously. In The Body Keeps Score, psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk observes that the body, essentially, has a mind of its own. While we may cognitively know an action or word we are producing is wrong, our physical selves may not. Apollo’s little string-bean body is still catching up to his brain.
Of all the daily injustices inflicted upon us by the jokers in charge down in Austin, one good bill was recently signed into law. HB 674 prohibits discretionary out-of-school suspensions for pre-kindergarteners through second graders, and while the law doesn’t require it, it “permits” each school district to “identify student needs and create its own plan to train educators and support students with age-appropriate, research-based methods,” Appleseed says.
No one’s saying teachers don’t have difficult jobs and aren’t trying their best. And we also know that our little ones can be tough. It’s just that Fort Worth — and pretty much every other Texas school district — needs to do a better job equipping teachers with the skills to handle certain manageable behaviors, including “being disrespectful,” a popular explanation for suspensions in Fort Worth. A popular explanation and an incredibly ticky-tacky one.
While planning to have a family, I thought, “Great. By following my kid through life, trying not to get either of us killed or worse, I will be able to relive my childhood, especially the best parts.” Drawing monsters on construction paper, making “music” with guitars and drums, eating peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, tossing the football in the backyard, sniffing Elmer’s Glue — I thought that by doing all these things, I would be brought back to when I did them originally. As a relatively good kid in a relatively stable family in a relatively cozy part of the country in the late 1970s and early ’80s, my biggest worries were The Day After, algebra, and Michael “Swat” Conley. (Even that little prick’s nickname was mean. Who lets their kid go around being called “Swat”?) My son is almost 6, and I’ve just realized that I’ve felt more joy listening to part of a disco song and forcing myself to “dance” than I have being with him on his level since 2011. I’m still trying to be OK with this.
Before I got help (I got help), I was addicted to nostalgia. Essentially, I was addicted to the belief that the good times I had experienced when I was a kid were going to return. “If only I can manifest the security, warmth, and comfort of my childhood,” I thought, “then I will be able to channel them into new security, warmth, and comfort today!” What I dreamed of before my outlook took a turn for the better — a kind, loving, supportive wife, a kind, loving child, running water, a roof over my head, a job that I love — is what I have now. Am I saying my tack worked? I’m not sure, but if losing my nostalgic predilections was the price I had to pay for abject contentment with the occasional flash of joy now, I wouldn’t go back to alter one tear wipe or thousand-yard stare.
As “Boogie Nights” continued to roll, I took my sweet time drying myself off, putting on deodorant, pulling up my trustiest pair of cargo shorts, tying my hair into a ponytail (it’s a long story) to be able to shape my beard without getting shaving cream in my hair, putting on a t-shirt, shaving, just getting dressed like a normal person — several rooms away, my 5-year-old was being a 5-year-old, and my wife was doing chores. (Of course she was. She’s like a crazy person with the chores. Our furniture must be made of lava.) Louis C.K. once said that the only time a parent has to himself is when he’s walking from the rear-passenger-side door to the driver’s seat. I know that if I want precious me-time, I’ve got to make it (read: steal it).
But then I thought about my role. I’m a father. Me-time doesn’t exist the way it used to. Me-time is now also our-time, me and my little dude. The other day my newsfeed served up a corny but cute meme: a picture of a dad and his son with the caption, “He won’t remember your presents, just your presence.” Dad humor? Definitely, but it’s stuck with me. I was essentially raised by wolves. The youngest of four, I learned early on that I was going to have to figure out a lot of stuff on my own, which probably explains why I’m so into my damn me-time. My son is different. He’s really into our-time. And I can’t help but be charmed by it.
“Hey, Apollo,” I gushed to my son — he and my wife had not been raptured, evidently, but were putzing around the kitchen. “Check out this song.”
I tapped the PLAY button on my phone.
“It’s called ‘Boogie Nights!’ ” I shouted over the music. “It’s the jam! Your Uncle Lenny used to love this song when he was a teenager, way back in the late 1970s. Every Friday and Saturday night, he would put on his polyester bellbottoms and his big platform shoes — the soles were, like, four inches high! that’s right! Uncle Lenny is still the short one! — and he’d put on these psychedelic polyester button-down shirts with these huge lapels, and he would tease out his bouffant, and he and all his buddies would pile into his champagne-colored Opal and hit the discos, and they would dance to this song, and others like it, tons of others, for hours. Just like that! That’s right! Shake your booty, little man!”
Dancing to a classic disco jam with my son on an otherwise unremarkable summer Saturday afternoon was worlds better than reverting to the guilt that haunts me. You’ve got to grab the joy when you can. That’s one of the best parts about having a kid. It’s not the achievements or the cute pictures. It’s being put in the Now almost constantly, and when you’re in the Now, you’re making new memories — good ones for you to be nostalgic about later, possibly, or bad ones for you to dwell on forever, or mixed ones for you to make note of because we have been programmed by our techno overlords to believe that things exist only if they’ve been documented. And we’re being further programmed to believe that things exist only if they’ve been documented and then shared on social media ad infinitum.
I don’t walk around with my phone all the time, just enough to capture a few of the memories I’m making, that my family is making. To help ameliorate this new species of bittersweetness, and satisfy our programming, my wife and I recently set up an email account for our son. We send him letters about once a month, just to recount family outings or particularly funny and/or sweet things he says or does or that we all say or do. Hopefully, he won’t know we’re emailing him as much for us as for him.
We leave out the bad parts, I have to admit. Are we any better than those bug-eyed-smiling families we all see on Facebook? Whose lives are just so perfect and joyous and despoiled by nothing that it makes you want to puke? I suppose so. My reasoning is that while we want to be truthful, we don’t want our son in the future to ever feel as if he were some sort of burden. That’s not just good manners. It’s good parenting. Kids have enough to worry about. They don’t need to feel as if they’re preventing their parents from something other than their most important job: raising a respectable, healthy young person. Of all of the parenting platitudes in print, one that I think I’m making up now has to be true: Parenting is tough, but you’re guaranteed to smile with your heart at least once a day in the process. What more can an overweight 46-year-old goofball like me ask for?
I know nostalgia is a trap. Like checking Twitter or maybe pushing the ol’ Camry to 85 in a 70 mph zone, it’s just another shot of dopamine that we all need to get through the shit that is daily life as a worker bee. I also know that while I may long for the security, warmth, and comfort that I felt as a relatively good kid in a relatively stable family in a relatively cozy part of the country, I am filtering out the context, the often messy context. Life in the 1970s and ’80s — in my town and elsewhere — wasn’t so great for a lot of other folks, children included. Nostalgia, says author Alan R. Hirsh in Nostalgia: A Neuropsychiatric Understanding, is a “longing for a sanitized impression of the past.” A natural lefty since childhood, I allow the following sensation to enter my consciousness: I owe it to every person for whom society itself was horrible back then to chase away nostalgia as often as I can now. I’m not always successful. I still try.
When I was a kid, I believed that life happened only at Heaven. To my twentysomething self, life happened only in suburbia. Now that I represent my younger self’s dream, I can’t honestly say what has happened to life — whatever it is, I don’t feel it often enough. I can see it, and touch it and even smell it, but I rarely really feel it. It’s like watching a good movie or reading a good book. You’re aware of the main characters’ emotions, their assorted shapes and colors, but they’re outside of you, leaving you with only an intellectual impression of them. Or maybe that’s the beer talking. (It’s the beer talking.)
As Apollo and I continued grooving, “What a Fool Believes” came on, the very non-disco Doobie Brothers song from the same era. Our bodies slowly dissolved into just the two of us standing there facing each other, Apollo looking up at me with his head titled to one side like a puppy, me studying my phone for the damn SKIP button, though before I could tap it, I caught the lyric “No wise man has the power to reason away / What seems to be.”
Well, you can thank me for at least trying.