A meditation on the meaning of fatherhood
A sudden realization of the obvious.
Even though it’s been a year and a half now, whenever someone refers to me as a dad, I still feel like it’s being said with air quotes, as if they’re kind of joking. It’s not that I’m too young to be a new father—at 50 it’s quite the opposite. But inside, I feel like Lev and I are more like bros, and Michelle, despite being younger than me, is the adult of the house.
Not just because I am so immature that I often get down on the floor and crawl around with Lev, to the point that he’s probably not sure if I’m his much older brother or maybe some kind of damaged pet chimp. But more because my inner sense of self is still 13 years-old. When Michelle is talking to Lev and says something like, “Do you want daddy to read you a bed time story”? I always feel like we’re all in on a joke, because how could I, just a few months past my bar mitzvah, be someone’s dad? But it’s a fun game, so we all play along, and I end up reading him the book in some made up sing-song burp language, and maybe no harm is done by my secretly held delusion. Although I did teach him to drool the other day.
This arrested development of my identity isn’t limited to being a father, by the way. I still turn around and look behind me when someone addresses me as “sir,” in an airport or restaurant. I feel like Tom Hanks in “Big,” an impostor, gleefully enjoying the fact that somehow the world is treating me like an adult when inside I’m still reading Mad Magazine and posting Wacky Package stickers to my bedroom door. Despite my creeping infirmity and sagging physical presence, I just somehow never stopped feeling boyish—and for better or worse, I’m still crawling around under the kitchen table with Lev.
But yesterday, something milestone-ish happened. Michelle and I were visiting my parents and sitting under some trees in the shade while Lev played, naked, in a small plastic bath tub filled with water. A sluggish breeze struggled to moved the leafy dark conifers above our heads. Both the humid summer air and time itself seemed to slow down enough for me to have a sudden realization of the obvious. It hit me that while I don’t have any psychological need to feel like a father, being a dad is about a relationship, and Lev does need me to be that guy.
Having recently entered this vast and confusing universe, Lev doesn’t mean it ironically when he calls me da-da. In fact, he requires me to play a role like my own father has for me, of bedrock reliability, embodying kindness, patience, always thereness. So even if I’m personally lost in an extended Peter Pan reverie, I can’t ever forget that fatherhood is a tango that takes two. And in that relationship, I’m not the important one. My parenting needs have already been met with impeccable patience and generosity by my own father. Now it’s my turn to try to emulate him and be someone else’s rock of Gibraltar.
The values I used to think were most important about my own self-image—being the center of attention—have to give way to something more subtly heroic. But just because this isn’t my time to shine by standing in the spotlight and delivering the punchline, doesn’t mean being a dad is an act of drudgery. Fatherhood can still be exciting but it’s a chance to shine in a different, more quiet way, by being the anchor to someone else’s ship as it tentatively leaves the harbor.
And so as Lev learns to sail off on his own life journey in a plastic bathtub, I’m sitting here, stunned at the epiphany that no, this is not some kid of cosmic joke. This is my family. I am a father.
And to celebrate, and christen this amazing voyage, I stood up and poured a bucket of water on my son, knowing my own father would never do that to me, but perhaps stirred into action by some long-forgotten instinct that it was something I would definitely have done that to my little brother.
Because as Lev splashed around in that plastic tub, blowing bubbles with soapy water, cooing with delight at those fragile opalescent sudsy spheres, bubbles as fleeting as this very moment, he was assuming the two adults watching him were normal and fully-qualified parents, and he was, after all, kind of asking for it.
things adults can learn from children's books
One of the things that happens when you have a baby, is you acquire a library. As with all libraries, this one will mainly bore you to death. But there are also some valuable things you can learn from your new and ever-expanding shelves of children’s books. Especially the classics.
For example, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince is about a tiny royal who falls in love with a flower. But the rose has a thorny personality, so the Prince flies through outer space, where he realizes there are millions of roses on Earth. Just as the prince is about to win hard-earned spiritual freedom with the knowledge that he’s got a lot more options than he realized, a talking fox convinces him he was right to obsess over that one difficult rose. The moral of the story is never trust a fox. They are rarely fair and balanced.
Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is a charming metaphor about runaway children in which we learn that if you flee your parents’ home, chances are you will find yourself surrounded by savage beasts and you will probably miss your mommy’s home cooked meals. I personally learned this the hard way as troubled youth, when I ran away from home and lived on the streets for a brief time. (By “brief” I mean about 10 minutes. I only got as far as Kenny Schneider’s house, when Mrs. Schneider called my mother and told her where I was, and gave me cookies and milk.)
Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is about having a bad hair day, and contains the the slightly misleading suggestion that everybody has bad days, “even in Australia.” Fact check: I’ve been to Australia and everyone there has fantastic hair. The downside is a shark will gnaw on your head when you go swimming, and the spiders will kill you.
Speaking of spiders, In E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, an altruistic arachnid named Charlotte rescues a pig named Wilbur. Although she saves Wilbur’s life, at the end of the book, Charlotte dies. The message is, we will all die and be dead for a very long time, so you may as well be nice to pigs.
In Dr. Seuss’s Horton Hears A Who!, the lesson is that even microscopic lives matter—and that we should feel guilty when we brush our teeth as we are causing the genocide of billions of microbes. Which is why I’ve stopped making Lev brush his teeth and instead taught him the old saying, “Your teeth are like your friends: ignore them and they’ll go away.” And that’s why the Lord gave us smoothies.
Which brings me to the most best new children’s book I’ve read in years. It’s called Poor Little Guy, by Elanna Allen. It’s a beautifully illustrated story of a tiny blowfish who is about to be devoured by a hungry octopus. The blowfish wears large glasses, and has sweet innocence about him. He is trusting almost to a fault. Or so it seems.
In Elanna Allen’s book, the “poor little guy” to which the title refers, is an exquisitely cute little yellow blob. In reality, blowfish have long, tapered bodies and bulbous heads. Some also have spines on their skin to make them even less palatable.
I don’t want to spoil the end, but let’s just say that since blowfish have a slow, somewhat clumsy way of swimming which makes them vulnerable to predators, in lieu of escape, they use their highly elastic stomachs and the ability to quickly ingest huge amounts of water to turn themselves into a virtually inedible ball several times their normal size.
Which is why, as in the story of Poor Little Guy, if a certain beautifully hand-painted octopus should manage to get an adorable little blowfish into its mouth before it inflates, the octopus won’t feel lucky for long.
You see, almost all blowfish contain tetrodotoxin, a substance that makes them foul tasting and often lethal to fish. The book doesn’t tell you this, but tetrodotoxin is deadly, up to 1,200 times more poisonous than cyanide. There is enough toxin in one blowfish to kill 30 adult humans, and there is no known antidote.
Despite his innate arsenal of fearsome biological poison, at first, the blowfish who is the hero of Poor Little Guy seems to have an almost Ghandi-like commitment to nonviolent resistance. But dagnabit, that pesky octopus just won’t stop. (Octopuses really suck.)
One lesson of Poor Little Guy is, don’t bully little people. The subtext is obviously about Mike Tyson, who was quite short for a heavyweight and yet he punched really hard and probably gave some of his opponents brain damage. Also, don’t mess with the blowfish.
Amazingly, the meat of some blowfish is considered a delicacy. It’s called fugu in Japan, and people pay insane amounts of money to eat it. It’s kind of like playing Russian roulette, only with with sushi. Of course, fugu only prepared by specially trained, licensed chefs who work with the solemn awareness that one bad cut means almost certain death for a customer. And yet, many such deaths occur annually.
The real moral of the story is, in the era of globally interconnection and disruptive start-ups, small is the new big.
And be careful what you put in your mouth.
Sweet dreams Lev!
the drama of the gifted child
I don’t know about you, sister, but my child is gifted. I mean, his diapers look like Jackson Pollocks, he’s already taught himself to speak in that African clicking language, and he knows where his nose is half of the time I ask him.
So brilliant is the young prodigy—and I swear I am not making this up—at 16 months Lev has taken to picking up his dirty diaper after we change him, walking over to the garbage, and placing it neatly within.
Pretty darn handy, I thought to myself, the first time I observed it
Soon I can fire he cleaning lady and having this little neat-freak handle the tidying up.
Again this is not fiction: Lev literally spends time every day with a sponge, wearing a maid’s uniform, wiping down the coffee table. I’m not sure if this is something to brag about or be ashamed of, but he also has a thing for the broom and the dust bin tray.. He walks around the house with them for long stretches of time, snorting imperiously at puffy balls of dust when he sees one a corner of the apartment.
I figure, OK,, everyone has their quirks. So my son has an OCD-level obsession with brooms and sponges. Also, he loves using the Dyson vacuum cleaner, though he doesn’t yet understand you are supposed to push it around on the carpet so he just stands there, grinning, with the machine running. Or maybe he’s just moving slowly and getting that one spot of carpet really clean.
Anyway, the kid is scary smart. If for example, he’s eating some cheese and a speck falls on the ground, he’ll pick it up between his thumb and forefinger and examine it like a scientist who has just discovered evidence that Whales have toes. Then he’ll saunter over to the garbage, throw it away, and shoot me a quick, holier than thou look. He does it in a mean girl, bitchy office-mate way, as if reminding a co-worker, “Yes, we do have a recycling bin here.”
Anyway, Michelle and I quickly grew to appreciate the fact that at under 18 months, the boy was showing signs of wanting to clean up after himself. Before long, we weren’t just proud, we were literally peeling bananas and tossing the peels on the floor. Then I would snap my finger and Lev would look up from whatever toy he was playing with and like Pavlov’s dog, be unable to stop himself from throwing the banana peel in the garbage.
I don’t know if you’ve ever had a trained monkey that cleans up after you, but it’s like heroin or absolute power. It quickly corrupts even the best among us.
So it should come as no surprise that our hubris soon led to a painful downfall, and I was forced to install a childproof lock on the garbage. We had so far avoided childproofing the house, because who wants to stop the roommate who wants to clean?
The problem began the other night when Michelle was rushing out of the apartment for a meeting and couldn’t find her phone. It wasn’t until the next day, after looking under all the couch cushions that it hit me: that little bastard had thrown away Michelle’s iphone.
Unfortunately, I had thrown the trash into the compactor by then. Fortunately, Michelle had activated the iphone’s “track your phone” feature so we were able to follow the slow upsetting journey of that brand new $1,600 slender glass-enclosed portable supercomputer as it moved in a garbage truck to west 69th street. We watched helpessly on her laptop as a small dot showed us the pier where her perfectly good phone was loaded into a barge and sailed down the Hudson River to become landfill in Staten Island.
Since then, Lev has been standing in front of the garbage, unable to open it, whimpering softly. The new childproof lock has made us painfully aware of how many times a day you only have one free hand to pull open the trash (for example, the other hand has messy cracked eggshells in it) and how this new childproof lock now requires you to put everything down and wash your damn hands, many times a day.
And then you see the small gifted child, staring forlornly at the locked garbage can, deprived not only of his fun but of a part of his identity, his career as a garbageman.
And then you think, it was only a phone.
Tomorrow I’m taking the lock off.
why your baby is acting like a dude at a phish concert
I recently encountered what we call in the reggae world, “tribulations.” Or what white people call “health issues.” Nothing life threatening, I just turned 50 and began falling apart like a paper doll. For the first time in my life, I got laryngitis. Then I got plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation in the bottom of the foot. Despite a suicidal amount of Advil and a self-tormenting number of hours spent with my foot on ice, the pain just got worse.
I could no longer walk the talk. Nor could I talk the walk. I could barely grunt. The doctor put me on total vocal rest, and since I don’t own a wheelchair, I was reduced to crawling.
The laryngitis isn’t a big deal — it just meant Michelle could say all kinds of things and I was reduced to furiously scribbling responses on a pad, which she refused to read. The foot pain was really the issue — not just the immobility, which is an inconvenience, but the sheer exhaustion of being in throbbing pain day and night. After a lifetime of martial arts, I have a high pain threshold. I’ve inflicted a lot of suffering on myself, which may have been stupid, but at least I never felt fragile.
Suddenly now my bones seemed hollow and brittle, like those of a small bird. Every step sent lightning bolts of urgent messages to my brain. In the fight world, we like to say that “pain is just information.” You can choose how you react to it. And you know the old saying, “Everything happens for a reason.”
On the other hand, sometimes the reason sucks. Last night, as I was moving painfully across the floor on all fours, like a fat sad grunting bug, I thought, “Things are going pretty well for me. If only those idiots from high school could see me now. Trying to get to the bathroom while bruising my knees on the stone floors, like a boss. “
But I’m an optimist. I like to see the glass half full, even when the glass just broke in half and cut your finger. So while meditating on the arising of sensations which mortals call “pain,” I began to look for a silver lining.
There’s a Buddhist prayer, which is basically, “Whether circumstances seems good or bad, inspire me to maintain a habit of happiness.” Consoling myself with the thought that I was paying off a karmic debt, I began to think, OK, what’s the upside here? Now that I can’t speak or walk, at least I can relate better to Lev’s been through in the first 16 months of his life. Now I can understand how frustrating it must be for him to have a head full of bat-shit thoughts and be unable to express them clearly, or to want to run across the room like a graceful gazelle, but instead move like a scalded chimp. The lesson I of the injury was empathy: Now I know how Lev feels.
Turns out I was wrong.
According to new research, babies don’t feel like fat old men with laryngitis and foot injuries. They feel more like hippies on acid. For the first time ever, scientists have scanned the brains of people using LSD and discovered the drug makes our brain less compartmentalized, and more like the mind of a baby. We adults spend all day identifying, judging and organizing our thoughts and experiences into tidy little boxes. Babies just throw all their experiences into one glorious pile. It turns out your brain on LSD resembles your brain when you were an infant: free and unconstrained, which explains why your baby is hyper-emotional and imaginative and likes Phish.
Of course, the most difficult thing about being sick and injured, is you want to be babied. But your baby also wants to be babied. And last night, Michelle began feeling not so well. So for one Larry David-ish moment, all three of us were laying in bed moaning. Michelle was clutching her stomach, saying she felt nauseous. I was trying to use a kitchen towel to wrap an ice pack to my foot. Lev was crying about God knows what. And I thought, Look at the three of us. This is what we get for not taking drugs?
Health might not be wealth, but illness really is like poverty. It leaves you in a state of constant wanting. Which magnifies our basic stance of petulant dissatisfaction. And just like LSD, illness and injury can also lead to a breakthrough, a change in consciousness.
When I woke up this morning, Lev was smiling and dazed in the sunlight, his little head of curly hair like a dandelion fluff, and I crawled to the bathroom thinking, This is alright. You notice a lot about the floor when you’re on all fours. I saw the little divots in the tiles that Lev stick his fingers into, and a piece of what I hope was an apple. And then it hit me: instead of me taking acid to understand how Lev sees the world, all I needed to do is spend a little more time crawling.
The moral of the story is that sickness and injury can be a blessing in disguise, to the degree that they force us to slow down and take a fresh look at ourselves. Getting up close and personal with the floor is a great way to learn to relate to you baby. And sometimes you gotta get low if you want to get high.
the first haircut
According to Jewish law, it’s an age-old custom to allow a boy’s hair to grow untouched until he’s three years old. Lev is not yet 17 months, but his hair has become an issue. He looks like Justin Bieber or Joey Ramone with a dense tangle of bangs ganging down to his chin like a security gate. And while it’s cute to see him wake up and try to swipe away at the long curly locks obscuring his vision, I began to feel like the lack of grooming was cruel.
We Hebrews believe that during the first three years of life, a child should just be allowed to sit back and vibe out. Basically, it’s a 3 year-long acid trip. God allows you to just absorb the sights and sounds and bask in the love of your parents, with no requirement to reciprocate. According to this tradition, until the age of three, the child is purely a receiver, and not yet ready, or required, to give anything back.
However, at three, your tiny Red Sea pedestrian is finally considered ripe to share his gifts with the world. For a Jewish boy, this transition is marked with a trip to the barber shop. On his third birthday, friends are invited to a haircutting ceremony—called an upsherin in Yiddish. A snip here, and snip there, maybe a shampoo and blow dry—but the child’s biblically mandated side-locks (peyot) are left intact.
An upsherin is traditionally a modest event, usually held at home or in a local synagogue. Light refreshments and hors d’oeuvres are the standard fare. Maybe some gefilte fish. In our case, what happened was Michelle and I drove out to New Jersey to visit my parents and before we knew it all hell broke loose.
Michelle had been secretly planning to take Lev to some fancy salon for his first haircut, and give him a $200 asymmetrical super fashion forward Flock of Seagulls look. But out of mercy and without much fanfare, we just took him out in the driveway of my parents’ house with a pair of scissors and Michelle began to shear him like a sheep.
All was going fairly well and nobody was crying. Lev was standing there like a startled lamb. Michelle cautiously trimmed a centimeter here and there from his bangs and was feeling OK, until at the very last minute my mother somehow commandeered the scissors and slashed a bizarre hunk of hair from his melon. Suddenly he looked like Jim Carey in Dumb and Dumbr. He looked like the child photos of serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Damler. He looked like a medieval Trapist monk with a mullet. Michelle looked at my mother like she was about to strangle her.
I had come down with a case of laryngitis so was unable to scream. There’s always a weird tension between your girlfriend and your mother, but this was a moment that lasted about 20 minutes during which I was a little scared there might be some actual ground fighting. My mother is 85, and once used a bag full of crochet needles to fight off a gang of assailants in Harlem when she was about 8, so she’s got the killer instinct of a rabid raccoon, and sharp teeth. Michelle can also punch pretty hard and likes to head-butt like a drunken Glaswegian, so it was unclear what would happen. Eventually they seemed to arrive at some sort of détente over biscotti and tea, and soon Michelle and our little mullet-having angel drove back into Manhattan in silence.
My silence has been enforced by the doctor for 72 hours due to the onset of laryngitis, and it’s been a blessing in the sense that Michelle has really enjoyed me being unable to speak. To be fair, I am a bit of a Chatty Kathy, and so it’s only fair that she would enjoy lording it over me when I am unable to respond.
The upside of losing my voice is it’s given me empathy for how Lev must feel in these few waning months before he becomes fully verbal. He can make a lot of noises but it all sounds like a Portugese guy who was injected with morphine in his tongue. So we are sort of on the same incapacitated communication level. I can whisper and frantically write notes and he gurgles and blathers, but for a while, Michelle is the only one who can actually express herself in complete sentences. After the shearing, however, she chose silence.
Lev’s first haircut brought up a PTSD from when I was 7 years-old and my mother used to cut my hair by literally putting a bowl over my head. She had been doing that with some success, which in my family was defined as lack of tragedy, for a few years, when she accidentally snipped my actual fucking earlobe in half. After that, I never let her cut my hair again. I’m not sure how she wrangled the scissors out of Michelle’s hands so nonchalantly that none of us were able to say anything before she had Lev looking like Hilary Swank, but my mother is sneaky and has fast hands.
It took a few days before Michelle and I were able to look at Lev and not sort of cry, but today after she put some coconut oil in his hair, it began to look not only normal but strangely glorious.
The thing about cutting your baby’s hair for the first time is that it gives you the first unbearable glimpse of him as a non-baby, as boy, or even a dude. He just doesn’t look like that little helpless primordial blob anymore. He has been shorn.
To non-parents, this will seem like nothing. But after the slow blissful-agonizing 17-months we have just been through, it wasn’t just a haircut. It was a revelation.
You can see more of his forehead and his jumpy expressive eyebrows, but it’s not only that. There’s a huge difference between a primordial forest and an English garden.
A baby is like wilderness. It’s just God or mother nature doing her thing. After that first haircut, it’s like the Garden of Eden on the morning after the incident with the apple and the snake. It’s hard to make eye contact. There’s been a rupture. Lev is still cute, but he’s been tweaked, affected, modified. The lily has been gilded. And then you realize with heart-stabbing clarity that nothing humans do—no poem, no song, no work of art—can ever be as great as the untrammeled perfect chaos of nature.
Even when it gets in your eyes.
The Snooze Button
Lev turned 16 months today. He woke up at 6:00 a.m. interrupting a dream in which I was about to take a bite of some homemade bruschetta with goat cheese, lemon and olive oil. Not as bad as the other day when Lev woke Michelle up just before she was about to meet Oprah. But still. That was some good bruschetta and it was inches from my mouth.
I understand why a popular podcast calls this phase of parenthood the longest shortest hour. Time flies by in a mix of delirious joy and excruciating exhaustion.
Time flies whether you’re having fun or not. There are very few antidotes to the way time races by. One is a traditional martial arts training method called the horse stance. Basically, you are sitting in a chair but without the chair. If you hold that squat position for half an hour, time does not fly. It barely crawls. Like having a baby, it’s tiring and painful but the rewards are considerable.
I never used to hit the snooze button much because I never used an alarm clock but nowadays, when we get Lev his bottle of milk it’s like hitting a snooze button. He has learned to drink while laying in bed, by resting the bottle on his his chest at just the right angle, like Keith Richards. And that allows us about 10 minutes of additional rest during which time speeds up such that 10 minutes goes by in about two seconds.
Lev slept in his crib the entire night which was a minor victory. I let him sleep with his shoes and a down jacket on, like Chris Farley after a bender. So first I had to undress him, change his diaper and dress him again. Got him his milk and for about 10 minutes I had the equivalent of hitting that glorious snooze button while he slurped softly in a daze.
The problem with hitting a snooze button is the kind of sleep you get is like the kind of life you have after you’re told you have 10 days to live. You count every second. You know the shoe’s about to drop. It’s not really sleep. It’s waiting.
I open my eyes and peek at how much milk is left in his bottle. Like sand through an hourglass, the part of the bottle with milk in it steadily decreases. And with each slurp I know we’re getting closer to the end of sleep. Because once he’s done with that last sip, his day is starting and he is ready.
Lev is a bit of an amateur beat boxer and the minute he wakes up he likes to start practicing all the sounds he can make: gurgle, shout, whisper, glottals, diphthongs, quick tongue movements, clicking sounds. He just lays there and runs through all the vocal noises he can make and even though I am bone-achingly tired I start to join him and we go back and forth in a volley of strange gurgles and shouts until Michelle opens one eye and looks at us with that singular look that means both “I love you and I am going to kill you,” and then it’s breakfast.
I look at the microwave to see what time it is. 6:04am. A time of day when I like to be dreaming about breakfast, not making it. Lev is shouting a nonstop series of guttural phlegmatic incantations; it sounds like Jackie Mason just swallowed helium and is trying to clear his throat. I limp across the living room like a wounded ape, while he clings to me, shouting and whooping with excitement that’s beyond making sense. It’s the nonsensical thrill of trying to make sense of an unknown world, a brain in the act of evolving.
Time gets weird during the first two years of a baby’s life. It’s like watching a monkey evolve into a homosapien in a sped-up time lapse. It’s like life with the fast forward button stuck down. Part of me can’t remember what the passage of time was like before Lev, but I don’t think I spent so much of it yearning for a nap. And yet as he gurgles out what sounds like a mix of Dutch, Ukrainian and Arab curse words, I remember he has no sense of time at all. He is swimming in the present moment. And we’re both having the time of our life.
Like you, when I was young I would ask, “Why is there Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, but no Children’s Day?” And like your parents, mine would answer, “Every day is children’s day, now shut up and eat your lentils.”
Now that I am a parent, I understand. And now that I understand what my parents did for me, I think every day should be Parents' Day. Since I was young, I always knew I could never be as good a parent as my parents have been to me. My mother and father, both clinical psychologists, have levels of intelligence, insight, patience, humanity and kindness that are 50 times beyond the best mom and dad you could ever imagine, and that’s not a putdown against anyone else’s parents. I’m just sayin’. My mom and dad are the bees’ knees. I feel like I was raised by two living Buddhas. They are smart, funny, interesting people who I am genuinely grateful to have as my best friends. Selfless in the extreme, they have also been great role models in terms of teaching by example how to love with intense warmth and care, and also allow your kids to separate and move away. In their 80s, both have thriving second careers — my father has published more than 100 of his poems and my mother has shown her artwork at galleries in Manhattan and around the world.
Having said that, they are both what I like to call bat-shit crazy. Not in a clinical way that definitely requires medication, but more like, my dad will often sit around the house on winter days, in the dark wearing a winter coat and hat, gobbling Portugese sardines and Vidalia onions and shouting at my mother that the broccoli is going bad. My mother makes art out of lint (that is not a typo, lint) and rust, and while constantly amazing in her brilliant childlike curiosity, will also literally ask the checkout lady at CVS permission to take a photo of her butts (don’t ask).
In short, my childhood was basically your typical American one, except for time spent on a macrobiotic commune, and the fact that my brother and I basically never got new underpants from the time we were four until about the age of twelve, we just wore them as the seams on the side broke open. But nobody in our house noticed that, because my father was working 12 hours a day and carrying home giant buckets of clay so we could learn to make pottery on the spinning wheel and kiln he bought us when I was in 2nd grade. He also bought a boat, and a monkey and a goat, and a horse, and much hilarity ensued. If I had time I would tell you more about the monkey, but suffice it to say he threw his feces around with Trump-like abandon, and also he bit.
To say that my parents influenced who I am today would be an understatement. My father played in a band. I had a band and became a professional songwriter. My parents wrote an article about meditating with your kids when I was about 7 years old and my mom gave me my first instruction in mindfulness meditation. I was around that same age when my parents also took me to a Buddhist temple where I saw demonstrations of aikido and tai chi. I later spent more than 30 years studying Buddhist meditation, aikido, tai chi and other martial arts.
I was not an easy child. I once told my mother I had to go to the bathroom during dinner. She said, 'No, finish eating your lentils'. I eventually stood up and peed on the brown linoleum kitchen floor.
This is not the time or place to start apportioning blame, and we could talk all day about who dragged who up the stairs and ground a plate of lentils on his head, even though he was only 8, and would later grow up to be a magnificent person.
The point is, I’m not saying I had a storybook childhood. It was more like an acid trip, led by some nice hippies. We spent every summer together, first at an old farmhouse near Woodstock, NY, and then later in Prince Edward Island. I recently watched home movies from that time and was struck by how rare it was and is for a family to spend entire summers together, somewhere beautiful and remote, for 20 years, and still get along, to still want more.
And so in honor of my parents, and as a new parent myself, I decided to create Parents Day. And that day is today. And everyday.
A cure for the common cold
There comes a time in every parent’s life when your child gets sick for the first time. One day, he’s a shiny little angel, and the next minute, he’s got snot running down his nose, and he starts to sound and look like Abe Vigoda.
Perhaps you aren’t old enough to recall Abe Vigoda. He played a rumpled old N.Y.C. cop on the 1970s-era sitcom, “Barney Miller.” His character was named Fish. Fish smoked many cigarettes, made the worst coffee in the world, and dealt with a lot of muggers.
When your kid is sick, it’s a lot like dealing with a mugger. Michelle and I just look at each other and scream, “Do whatever he wants — for God’s sake don’t argue!” Which is how Lev ended up sleeping not in his bedroom, nor in his crib, but once again, back in our bed, facing upside-down with his nose tucked near my butt.
I was like, “Bro. I ate beans and cabbage and flax seed for dinner. You’re kind of in my kill zone.”
And Lev was like, “First of all Dad, I have a cold. I can’t smell anything. Second, get with the times: a lot of dudes like to sleep upside down with their noses buried in another man’s butt cheeks. It’s called making a Kanye Nest.”
I’m not usually into anything that begins with the world Kanye. But since Lev was sick, and it appeared to sooth him to sleep cheek to cheek, fine. I thought back to when Lev was three days old and he was in the ICU because he had jaundice and was yellow and looked like one of the Simpsons. He was laying under a blue light inside a plastic incubator like John Travolta in “Boy In The Bubble” and looked like he was relaxing inside a tanning booth.
But these last few days, Lev’s been coughing in horrible fits, nobody is relaxed and we all look kind of yellow. Michelle took him to the doctor, who said not to worry, Lev will be OK. But there is a victim with a less optimistic prognosis: sleep training. That fragile little beast has taken a terrible beating.
Sleep training is a wonderful and extremely upsetting thing because it involves causing the person you love the most in this world to feel abandoned and cry for many nights in a row. All this was about as easy as running a marathon every day for 12 months while carrying a knapsack full of sand. Except sleep training is not like running a marathon, because it’s three steps forward and then two steps backwards, a long slow process that’s not linear. You finally get your baby to sleep through the night and he gets a cold and suddenly you’re back to step one.
When I observe Lev napping during the day, he seems to be fairly still, but at night, once he gets into our bed, he is a tornado of non-stop kicking, farting, snoring and yoga inversions.
At night he transforms into Twitchy Von Twitchenstein. Warning to his future girlfriends: he kicks like a donkey in his sleep. I have been kicked in the face, slapped in the nutsack, and repeatedly punched in the neck. Now he’s doing this Kanye thing. And then, just before the sun begins to appear like a terrible red bruise in the sky, finally, in a fit of exhaustion from sleep-beating me, Lev finally passes out draped across my throat, slowly crushing my windpipe while he dreams of fields filled with candy and unicorns.
But here’s the secret about the failure to sleep train — and all the other setbacks we experience as new dads: yes, there are the valleys of despair, the feeling of, when will this ever end? But even though I am falling apart like a person with actual leprosy, there is a not inconsiderable part of my mind that thinks, This is all worth it.
Because a few times a night, when Lev sits bolt upright in bed as though a terrifying clown has just entered the bedroom holding a butcher knife, I get to comfort him. And in the morning, when he wakes me up at an hour when even garbage men have not hit the snooze button, he smiles at me, and it’s like an incandescent pilot light has been lit inside my superior vena cava, which as all medical students know, is the second largest vein in the human body and runs directly into the heart.
Unfortunately, sleep deprivation also kills you, so this will have to stop.
But in the meantime, I comfort myself by thinking, these are moments I will never get back. And I try to inhale and be as present as I can, so that in the future I will be able to remember these fragile, mad sleepless hours, when a small fragrant elf slept in my bed, and stole all the blankets. And I hope especially I will never forget the innocent smile on his face this morning when he literally went to the bathroom, by which I mean he made fudge, while sitting on Michelle’s nose.
It was almost like a dream. Except for that, I would have had to be sleeping.
For the moment, there is no cure for the common cold. Except maybe love. And when you still want to hug your baby boy even though he smells like Abe Vigoda, you know you’re head over heels.
How to fly with a toddler
I recently went to Los Angeles on a songwriting trip and halfway through, Michelle and Lev joined me. This meant Michelle had to fly from New York to LA with Lev by herself. She was worried he would be difficult on the flight and so researched all the best ways to fly with a 15 month-old.
Like any sane responsible parent, Michelle prepared. She bought special headphones for babies, a half dozen iPad apps, and packed a bunch of toys and children’s books, as well as the strange things Lev likes to play with—our TV remote and a roll of masking tape. She also brought a blanket to change him on, diapers, butt wipes, butt cream and a small cooler with snacks, 5 bottles of organic whole milk, and all his favorite foods. There was not a single eventuality she failed to prepare for. Napoleon invaded Russia with less planning. Still, it was a hard flight now that Lev has learned to run, as he spent most of the time wriggling out of her lap and racing up and down the aisles, making friends with the other passengers.
Since we were booked on separate flights for our return to New York, I said it would only be fair if I volunteered to fly home alone with Lev, so Michelle could enjoy some grown up time on her flight. To my surprise, before I could finish floating the idea she said, Yes, good luck.
I decided to make the flight home with Lev a small experiment in parenting. I said no to packing the toys and the books and the remote and the masking tape. I just took one bottle of milk and when Michelle objected I said, don’t worry—I’ll just get milk from the stewardess on the plane. She told me Lev would go insane screaming and she advised me to bring an army of Elmo dolls and other ways to keep him distracted, but I said, Relax, we’ll have fun with our imaginations, we don’t need “toys” or “things” and I gently chided her for buying into the Buy Buy Baby consumerist parenting trap. I mean, how many apps can a 15-month-old need?
I had reduced my pre-flight carry on preparations to a few diapers and a bottle of milk. She looked at me like I was going to fight a lion armed with a fly swatter, shrugged her shoulders and went off to catch her flight.
Getting through security was a little stressful: there was an added layer of tension to the usual nervous choreography of taking off shoes, removing the laptop from the backpack, yanking Lev out of his stroller, folding the stroller with one hand while stopping him from running off and not dropping his one bottle of milk while subjecting it to whatever TSA bomb sniffing protocol they apply to baby milk, all while hoping Lev wouldn’t freak out as the line behind us grew longer and more impatient.
But once aboard the plane, fortune smiled on me. The entire flight was packed but somehow the passenger in the seat next to me didn’t make it on time, so Lev had his own seat and he promptly fell asleep for the next two hours.
Like George W. Bush unveiling his “Mission Accomplished” banner aboard an aircraft carrier right before Iraq descended into a decade-long orgy of terror and civil war, I began to pat myself on the back. So self-congratulatory was my mood that I ordered a beer and a tiny tequila, pushed my seat into recline position and settled in to watch a movie.
Just as I was pouring the tequila over a glass of ice, Lev awoke with a bloodcurdling shriek and I spilled the entire drink onto my thigh. (On the upside, he starting crying so ferociously the stewardess ran away and didn’t charge me for my drinks.) I tried to comfort Lev with milk but it turns out United Airlines does not have any milk on board its planes. I let that settle in for a moment while panic descended on me slowly like a feverish veil.
I briefly considered filling his bottle with artificial half and half creamers, but since a bottle of that would certainly kill a baby, I turned to plan B: we would use our imaginations and have fun with whatever we could find, like Tom Hanks in Castaway. I began playing with the little blue vomit bag, pretending it was a crown. This delighted the boy and he also began wearing the air sickness bag as a hat. And for a while I thought damn, I’m pretty good at solving problems on the fly. Then Lev “went to the bathroom” by which I mean he stayed right where he was on my lap and began to emit a foul odor which neither I nor my fellow passengers could ignore. That’s when things turned a little sour.
Inside the tiny 18 square-inch bathroom he freaked out as though nobody had ever wiped his ass inside a phone booth at 30,000 feet. I began to worry that a U.S. Marshall was going to burst in and taser me because Lev was screaming and trembling and covered in tears and spittle and poo.
Once back in our seat and somewhat cleaned up, I was finally able to put my less prepared parenting style to the test. My theory is that fatherhood is like life: you can make it as fraught and expensive as you want. Or you can relax and improvise. Lev and I began creating toys from the materials at hand. We played with the seatbelt buckle for about a half hour and Lev really enjoyed snapping it open and closed on my fingers. We played with the empty tequila bottle and empty beer can until Lev turned the can upside down on my lap and we discovered it wasn’t really empty. So it looked like I was the one who peed in my pants, and we both laughed at the irony. Then we leafed through the inflight magazine and Lev was tearing every page to shreds, which amused me until we got to some pages that were sticky and had some weird brown food-like substance stuck to them and I quickly moved on to plan C. I filled his bottle with water and to my surprise, he fell asleep in my lap, sipping away quietly, apparently unaware of the difference between milk from a cow’s udder and tap water from a faucet.
Once again I felt that special combination of warm fatherly love and smug pride at having gotten by in life with the minimum effort.
The stewardess came by and gave me a little snack packer and the crinkling noise of the wrapper woke Lev. He was curious about what I was eating and since I had long ago panicked and eaten all the food I had brought for him, I figured, Why not? Worst case scenario is we discover he is allergic to something. Lev ate some of the dried snacks but the wasabi peas were too spicy. He looked at me with an expression of pained betrayal and began to weep and yank at his lips frantically as if to remove the sting of the wasabi manually.
Fortunately a kindly passenger a few rows ahead of me saw our distress and passed me large container of fruit she had bought at Whole Foods, which she said her kids refused to eat.
My kid on the other hand is a fruit-aholic. So we spent the remainder of the flight smiling and feeding each other blueberries and strawberries.
When we landed in New York, I got some milk at the airport and filled his bottle. Michelle met me at baggage claim looking well-rested. Lev pretended everything was cool.
“Well?” She asked, with an air of anticipatory schadenfreude. “How did it go?”
“Shut up,” I explained, as we wobbled through the airport exit, a family made whole again. Life is easy with two adults against one little beast strapped into his stroller. I had survived and proved my point. You don’t need apps and a bunch of crap to be happy. Looking back on it, maybe the wasabi peas weren’t such a good idea.
The moral of the story is, relax and someone will probably give you fruit. And flying across the country alone with my toddler with zero preparation?
It was the easiest thing in the world I’ll never do again.
How Fatherhood is like meditation
I recently came back from a meditation retreat. I’ve attended about four a year over the last two decades so this was about the 80th time I took time off to try to focus on spiritual practice. Despite all the years of meditation I remain a sweaty, braying egotistical jackass. But having a baby has made me think anew about the ways in which meditation and parenting are similar endeavors.
On the surface, the opposite would seem true: Meditation is a path to serenity and stillness, culminating in complete enlightenment. Parenthood is a whirlwind of chaos and poopie that makes you bald, fat and insane.
In fact you might think there aren’t any similarities at all between a spiritual practice and having a child. If anything, having a baby would seem to make it more difficult to find time to sit down and focus your mind. You can barely find time to brush your teeth, and if you are me, you look like a cigar just exploded in your face.
But in a strange way, an infant can enhance your meditation practice. As meditators we train ourselves to watch our minds at all times, and now we have something external to be aware of 24 hours a day. Something we have to protect, just like we strive to protect our minds from negative thoughts and emotions.
Of course if you lose it with meditation it’s ok. You can return to your breath. If you lose awareness with a child it could mean a trip to the hospital or worse.
But a baby gives you another great source of inspiration. We have a real reason to try to improve our behavior since we are now modeling for someone else.
Lev is 15 months old now, and in some ways he is like a baby Buddha, always perfectly in the present moment. On the other hand, if I try to take the remote away from him, he doesn’t hesitate to bash me up the side of my head.
Today I was feeding him a bottle of milk, and trying to meditate while he cuddled in my lap. Mothers get to have the direct physiological experience of unity with the baby in the womb but for fathers, the closest we can come to non-duality is these quiet moments of being together, doing nothing special when without warning the extraordinary happens. Time seems to slow down to the point where you’re not sure if it’s moving at all. You feel your son breathing, and you are aware of the air moving in and out of your body, too, and you feel expansive, a creator of human life. But also incredibly small. And the paradox of reality dawns on you, that you have arrived at one of life’s perfect moments. It’s utterly unstable and yet you feel balanced, and the strange sense of calm a tightrope walker must have.
And then like a Zen master mixed with Rodney Dangerfield, Lev farts loudly and reminds you that all of nature is purposelessness and he needs a clean diaper.
One of my favorite Zen sayings is “Before enlightenment chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood carry water.”
I take that to mean that while achieving liberation changes everything, we should also carry on as usual and not make a big deal out of it.
I think fatherhood is a lot like that. On one hand, your life now has new meaning and the most miraculous thing imaginable has happened.
On the other hand, you really need a shower.
And now, a word about failure
I won’t bore you with details of the epic wars and battles we went through to finally get Lev to sleep in his own bed, in his own room, through the night. That would be like telling a story of how we finally pushed a giant boulder up a hill but not before it rolled down and crushed all our bones several times.
The point is, at some point, he learned to sleep.
Then, for whatever reason (in this case we did a bathroom renovation upstairs next to his bedroom, and then he got his first cold) Lev moved back into our room and it was not long before he was in our bed.
And here is the thing about this thing, which everyone says is not only an epic failure but dangerous. Here is the thing they don’t tell you.
It feels amazing.
I suppose it’s like heroin. There’s a reason people become junkies. Presumably because heroin feels really good. (So I am told. I fear both pleasure and addiction too much to have gained firsthand knowledge.)
The thing nobody tells you about failing at sleep training is that it is the best thing you can ever do in your life.
Because when this mop-headed hobbit-like Buddha returns to sleeping in your bed, nestling humidly between you and your gorgeous exhausted woman, you gain a brief chance to step back into the Garden of Eden.
It’s rare that the innocent sleep among you. It’s a special gift to hear the snore of a person who has never committed any wrong, someone who has not even known the primal sin of self-consciousness. To wake up fixed in the bustling smile of a being that needs no excuse to smile. (This is also why Lev looks great in whatever outfit he throws on, because he doesn’t care about appearances.) When I am with my son, I am in the presence of pure presence.
And so at this late hour—when you might otherwise be up working or enjoying your life in New York City—you think briefly though not longingly of all the nights you went out in your long-extended wild years. You remember the urgent din of chic bars and the serious whimsy of art gallery openings, and the boredom and tension of dinner parties with rappers and models, and the gigs and the lounges with middle eastern themes, the celebrity jewelers, and all the terribly interesting things people had to say.
And then you realize with the kind of slow motion pleasure one imagines an opiate like heroin must impart, that there is nowhere else in the vast universe that you would rather be.
That you have found the cure for all maladies, the antidote to anxiety in the magnetic, simple pleasure of laying on a mattress with your son and your girlfriend and hearing the hum of some distant aching machine, the city beyond these condo walls, where millions are still looking for the thing you have found.
Words and music
When a baby takes his first steps it’s hugely significant—but it pales in comparison to a child learning to speak. Going mobile matters. But it’s merely mechanical. Learning to speak is like the moment the caveman first discovered fire. It’s a game changer.
When we get a grip on language we are connecting our brains to our breath. We are exhaling meaning into the word. Walking is nice. Talking is transformative. It allows the relationship between parent and child to become a two-way street. Finally we can ask, “Why the F are you crying?”
And our child can ask, “No Daddy, why are you crying?”
As a guy who makes his living with words and music, I’d been looking forward to Lev speaking far more than I was to him taking his first step. After all, Lev walking just meant me chasing. And safety-proofing the apartment.
But speech. That would open up a whole new world. We could sing together! I envisioned us forming a doo wop group and howling out barbershop harmonies late into the night on street corners. Michelle pointed out that I sing like a frog dying from a fungal infection; but still I harbored hopes that Lev and I would be the Simon and Garfunkel of the 21st century. But then I started having imaginary arguments with Lev about who had to be Garfunkel.
From the time Lev was a newborn, Michelle and I often wondered what our baby’s speaking voice would be like. Would it be high and squeaky or a deep husky rumble like Barry White?
Finally, Lev said his first word the other day. He padded quickly into the living room holding his finger up in the air and jabbing it towards my face and yelling boo boo. I was so overcome with joy I didn’t even care that he was hurt. I took his tiny hand and kissed his finger and said, “There. Daddy kissed your boo boo. Does that feel better now?”
Lev smiled slowly. And then he said, “No, dad. Not Boo boo. I said ‘Poo Poo.’ I have poo poo on my hand.”
Actually, that happened to a friend of Michelle’s, not me. (I get enough E. coli in my diet from eating at Chipotle.) What happened when Lev said his first word was much sweeter. He ran into the room yelling “Reese’s Pieces!” And then handed me some chocolate, which I ate while wondering, That’s odd. I wonder where Lev got—and then he smiled wickedly and said, “Not Reese’s you idiot. I said feces.These are pieces of feces.”
Actually, he just sauntered into the room and said, “Father, I took a huge stinky Trump.”
“OK, Lev, I get it. I’m not falling for this again. Next you’re gonna tell me you made a Ted Poos and a Marco Doodio. I get it. Word play.”
“No,” Lev said, pausing for just the right amount of time. “But I did just Carly Pee-orina in my pants.”
My boy’s first words. Music to my ears.
Who's Your diddy?
Last night I was watching a documentary about the epidemic of heroin use in America, especially among white teenagers in New England. It was very depressing. I’ve never used heroin and I don’t want to sound judgmental, but as I watched these young white teenagers inject themselves all I could think was how when you’re an addict, your focus is on getting high, which makes it impossible for you to help anybody else in a meaningful way.
Maybe I’m wrong. Or worse, maybe I’m a hypocrite.
Case in point: this morning when Lev woke up, I carried him into our bed and all I wanted was to go back to sleep for a little while. But he kept asking, “Daddy?” At first I felt like saying, who the hell else do you think I am?
But then I realized he was saying, “Diddy,” and since Diddy wasn’t in our bed — for once — I didn’t say anything. Who am I to answer for Diddy?
I was laying there thinking I should really get Lev a bottle of milk and change his diapers. But by then he had snuggled onto my chest and was hugging me in his soft little red velveteen onesie and it felt so good that I didn’t want to break the moment. And then I realized, I’m no better than those heroin addicts. Here I am, abdicating all responsibilty and enjoying this buzz of love, while my son doesn’t know how to ask for breakfast and keeps shouting for Diddy to come save him.
Spoiler alert. Diddy’s not going to save you.
Full disclosure: Sean Combs and I go back like sneakers and hats. The first time I met Diddy his name was still Puffy. It was 1993 and I was music editor at Interview magazine; we had dinner in Soho because he wanted to meet hip-hop journalists who could help him launch Bad Boy Records. He had signed the Notorious B.I.G and told me he was interested in signing a rock band, so after dinner, we sat in his Range Rover and he listened to my CD. For some reason, maybe because my singing sounds like Lou Reed but more awful, he didn’t sign me. But we stayed in contact.
About a year later, I interviewed him for another magazine and we had pizza at the Sbarro’s in Times Square. This was in 1994, at the height of the east coast west / coast rap feuds, and Tupac had just been shot a few blocks from where we had pizza. When the meal ended I remember being relieved to get away from Puffy because being shot by accident while standing next to Diddy is a stupid way to die.
Over the next 15 years I worked with Puffy on several TV shows—I wrote an MTV Choose or Lose special for him called VOTE OR DIE. I wrote VH1 Hip-Hop Honors and the MTV Video Music Awards the year he hosted the show in Miami.
(The entire two weeks before the VMAs, Diddy had a large room next to the production office that was decorated all white—white carpet, white walls, white DJ booth—and he kept a 24 hour party going in that room with a DJ and open bar and a bunch of girls dancing in white bikinis with sashes indicating which country they came from, like a miss America pageant. That must have cost a few hundred thousand dollars.)
The last time I worked with Puff was writing the Vh1 reality show called “So You Wanna Work for Diddy?” To which my answer is no.
No I don’t. Because you see Lev, Diddy owes daddy six grand. That’s a lot of diapers.
Back in 1999, Puffy bought a magazine called Notorious. He bought it because it was called Notorious. My friend Tiarra was the editor and assigned me a cover story on Prince. The magazine flew me out to Minneapolis where I spent a day with the Artist Formerly Known As. At one point Prince walked in on me while I was noodling on one of his guitars in Paisley Park recording studio, and he invited me to jam. So I wound up playing guitar with Prince and Larry Graham, and that was fun.
In a way, that almost makes me forgive Diddy. But then Notorious folded and he never paid me the six thousand dollars he owed me. So now when Lev calls me Diddy I don’t like it.
The moral of the story is, stay off drugs.
And don’t trust Diddy.
good cop, bad cop
Full disclosure: I have been peeing on the roof deck of my apartment lately.
That sounds really Soviet-era mental patient, but wait. I have an excuse. We’re renovating our second bathroom and Lev is sleeping in the room with the remaining bathroom so after he goes to sleep I have to go out on the roof deck. Not being a barbarian, of course, I don’t pee off the roof onto people, nor do I pee onto the deck. Michelle has some very large plantings — she grows basil and mint and tomatoes in the summer. I water the basil.
I make this embarrassing confession because as a father, it reminds me of when I was a toddler, and my family spent our summers at an old farmhouse in the Catskill Mountains. Every year, once school ended in June, my parents would pack us into the station wagon — an Oldsmobile Vista Cruiser with fake wood paneling on the outside — for a two hour drive to Greenville, NY, and we would spend all of July and August there at what we call “the farm.”
It was indeed once a dairy farm, and to make it more farm-like, my father would get us animals each summer: a horse, a goat, some ducks, chickens, and once, a monkey.
We named the monkey Chee-Chee, and insisted we keep him after the summer vacation ended in September, when all the other animals were sold back to the animal auction where my father had bought them in June. But soon we had to get rid of Chee-Chee because he liked to fling his poo out of his cage, and he bit people, and he was insane, and also keeping a monkey in the suburbs is illegal.
Anyway, peeing on my roof deck reminded me of a long buried memory: one summer day, I was peeing outside the main door of the farmhouse and my mother came out and said, “Why the fuck are you peeing on my flowers, you fuck?”
I was only four years-old and my father said, “Oh, Etta, leave him alone, it’s just pee. He’s watering your flowers.”
“His pee is full of ammonia and it’s killing my fucking flowers,” my mom said, picking up a dead raccoon and hurling it at my father, who ducked like George Bush during the shoe-throwing incident.
I looked around and the yard was strewn with dead raccoon carcasses — my father had been up all night with a .22 shooting raccoons, which had been killing our chickens. In the morning, we would fill a wheelbarrow with dead raccoons and walk it down the long gravel driveway and dump them in a ravine. It was a glorious all American childhood.
The point is, my parents were playing good cop/bad cop with me. At that stage, my father was taking the role of the permissive one, while my mother was on the warpath.
I knew they were both bat-shit crazy — I mean, who buys their 4 year-old kid a monkey? — but my dad was making his brand of crazy seem like the fun kind (staying up all night and shooting raccoons from his bedroom window) whereas my mom’s fixation on me peeing on her flowers struck my four year-old mind as a buzz kill.
Now that Michelle and I are parents, the same issues arise. For example, Lev is going through a phase where he likes Michelle better than me. Nothing personal, it’s just a fact. When he wakes up and sees me, he cries and then he runs to her and motorboats her boobies.
I can’t blame him. The best I can get is occasionally, if I’m alone with him, he will lift up my shirt, pinch my nipple in a bored, disappointed, cursory way, and say, “Meh.”
Lev’s parent preference is clear: he likes his mom more than his dad. He feels that she is more reassuring, more nurturing, and warmer. Fine. She can have that lane.
What I’ve done, instead, is stake out the role of Mr. Fun. While Michelle is busy cooking him organic garbanzos drizzled with hand-pressed virgin olive oil and razor thin slices of fennel, I get down on my hands and knees and race around the floor with him. As a result, Lev is starting to think maybe I’m his older brother rather than his father. His very grizzled-looking older brother.
Michelle is still his favorite — Lev’s not crazy, he knows where is bread is buttered — but I’m the one who’s willing to spend hours having drooling competitions with him. We burp out the ABCs together. We sneak up and fart in each others’ faces. Basic bro stuff. And if he should want to join me out on the roof deck one night for a little game of what I like to call, urination on mommy’s basil plants?
Well, let’s just say the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
to buy or rent?
When historians look back at this era, I think one of the seismic cultural shifts that will be associated with millennials is that kids these days don’t think about owning stuff. Instead of buying music on CDs, they stream it on Spotify. Rather than lease or buy a vehicle, they use a Zipcar.
The advantage of taking an Uber to your Airbnb rental while you stream a movie on Netflix is that you don’t own the car or the apartment or the DVD, so if something goes wrong it’s not your responsibility. You don’t own the thing, you rent the experience. There’s some wisdom in this sharing economy: perhaps there’s less grasping at an egocentric sense of “me” having "my stuff” to cling to.
But the flip side of less commitment is that we also have less responsibility. When you work hard to save up money and purchase something, you have pride of ownership. You wash your car and take care of it. You change the oil. Who cares about lovingly maintaining the air filter on a Zipcar?
In my teenage years, we used to separate the seeds from the weed on album covers. How can you do that with Spotify? In a world where everything is digital, there’s nothing to get your digits on. It’s handy, because you’ve got nothing in your hands, but with all the closet space we’re saving, we’re losing something. The relationship between a guy and his stuff.
There are other drawbacks. I recently got rid of my CD collection—about 6,000 CDs—and had it all digitized. Now it fits on a hard drive the size of a book (remember books?). I did this partially so that when Lev was born, we would have room for his non-digital paraphernalia. Nobody has invented a digital diaper. (Yet.) The upshot is, now I have a bunch of baby stuff where my CDs used to be. Spoiler alert for you yet-to-be parents out there: baby toys take up even more space than CDs and sound much, much worse.
And yet, I wouldn’t trade one box of Lev’s Butt-cream for all the Elvis Costello box sets in the world. Because Butt-cream makes Lev happy. And his happiness is my happiness.
There are two things that can happen when you become a dad: either you mourn your old life and nurture a slow-burning resentment because everything has changed, or you dive in headfirst and let fatherhood change you. Either way, you will have to give up your heavy bag, your bong, your CD collection—your toys—and you will spend more money than you ever imagined buying diapers for a tiny, screaming, crazy person. But the real trade is, you will give up caring about your own happiness and you begin to care more about someone else’s well-being and joy.
And this is one of life’s greatest paradoxes: you have never felt true happiness until you stop worrying about yourself and replace that obsession with wanting someone else to be happy. These days, when I see Lev smile, I couldn’t care less that I had to give up not only a heavy bag but a speed bag and a double-end bag (for non-boxers among you, just trust me, that was a sacrifice)—and my recording studio. I just feel a bunch of rainbows inside. He laughs and suddenly I am standing under a waterfall in Hawaii. Life smells like gummy bears.
And poo, sometimes. But mainly gummy bears. And that’s not the point. The point is, you surrender the futile mission of protecting your tiny scrap of personal joy, which was never very satisfying anyway, and you gain the whole world.
That’s the deal with fatherhood: You definitely own something, for real. Your baby is not a rental. Unlike Netflix and Spotify, this dad thing comes with real commitment and responsibility. There is a contract. It lasts a lifetime. Everyone knows you can’t buy happiness. And it turns out you can’t rent it or stream it either.
But you can have it.
These booties were made for walking
It finally happened. Lev took his first step. Two of them actually. Just a quick short stab forward with the right foot followed by a left, and then he plopped to the ground. I was at my parents’ house so my mother witnessed it, and my brother was in town, so he saw it too, as did my nephew, who began yelling, “He walked!” Then all hell broke loose, and we all began whooping and dancing the Horah and singing in Hebrew. Lev started clapping which only made us go more insane.
As with many firsts in the life of a baby, Lev’s first two steps were both momentous and mundane. He walks kind of like 50 Cent dances: just that same old two-step. Nothing more than is needed, each foot jutting out a few centimeters, leaving stability and finding it again as fast as possible. His tiny shoes moved forward like a lizard darting between rocks, quickly so as not to be eaten by a predatory bird.
But as much as we all whooped and hollered, the fact is a baby’s first steps are the kind of event that means a lot to the parents, a little to the rest of the immediate family, and absolutely nothing to the rest of the world.
When you see your child take his first steps, you personally will hear the Flight of the Valkeries and feel like you have just witnessed a moon landing. Nobody else in the world cares. And why should they? A deer walks a few hours after being born. So your kid took over a year to learn to be as smart as a deer.
But something crucial has happened. You have crossed the rubicon because now your kid can cross the living room. Remember those painfully adorable booties you used to put on his tiny infant feet? Those weren’t made for walking. But his feet are. And now he’s mobile and there’s no turning back. The chase has begun.
Once the baby learns to walk, it’s a non-stop marathon. You have to sprint approximately 10 miles a day in tiny increments chasing your most beloved creation who lacks any common sense, has bottomless reservoirs of energy, and terrific evasive maneuvers.
But that day hasn’t quite arrived. It’s not that those first steps were a fluke, it’s just that right now Lev doesn’t really know what this strange new power means.
Soon he will realize those first steps were a Great Leap Forward — not for mankind but just for him personally. But right now, I still have a most precious gift: a few more days until Lev realizes the world is his.
He is still in the Garden of Eden, innocent and unaware that sneakers were made for sneaking. That yes he can get from here to there. And that he doesn’t have to be in Rome to do as the Romans do. He can roam right here at home.
What will we do then? Childproof this apartment — which, now that you mention it, is full of sharp wooden edges and my weird sword collection — and somehow make sure he walks a straight line and never runs into trouble?
No. Lev is a free bird. We must let him spread his wingtips and fly. Actually, they’re loafers but the point is not what’s on the sole of his feet but what makes his soul feel complete. And that’s walking, baby.
This kid doesn’t need a stroller, he just wants to stroll. For the moment, somehow, thankfully those two little steps were enough.
He’s being gentle, ambling into the age of ambulation, and easing us into the day when he’s gonna ease on down the road for good.
Zen and the art of child's play
Zelda Scott Fitzgerald once said, “We were never bored because we were never boring.” For a lot of young kids and teens today, boredom has become the ultimate bogey monster: life is a constant battle to find ways to avoid it. Snapchat, Instagram, Minecraft, ever more digital options and distractions—these are the useless weapons of today’s youth as they tilt against windmills in their sisyphean battle against the terror of being bored—or even worse, of being perceived by others as boring.
Lev is a few years away from all that. When you’re one, the world is one. Sure, you’re cranky sometimes, but I don’t think boredom really enters the picture. Because at this age, everything and anything is interesting to him. A paper bag will entertain Lev for an hour.
Would Lev be excited if you gave him tickets to Star Wars? Yes. He would literally have as much fun with the tickets to the Star Wars premiere—just folding the tickets and turning them over and rapping them on the counter and maybe licking and eating them —as he would seeing the actual movie. It’s like he’s tripping on acid all day. Everything is fascinating.
A baby is like a great jazz improvisor or a zen master: so attuned to the razor’s edge of each micro-fraction of the present moment that by following his lead, you step out of time. You are no longer prolonging the past or inviting the future. Lev is a tiny pied piper who leads me to a world where time doesn’t so much stand still as it ceases to be an issue.
It disappears. You can’t save time in a bottle but you can transcend it, if you have the right role model.
Stepping out of time is the greatest joy any of us can ever experience. Freed from the constraints of a concept that we otherwise use to rush, punish, and pressure ourselves, we are truly alive at last. Ordinarily, time is a vise: we use it to crush ourselves between regret and anxiety. Lev leads adventures in timelessness that are like stepping into the rabbit hole in Alice In Wonderland. The wonderland begins with wonder.
The key to escaping this artificial concept of time is curiosity. When Lev plays, he isn’t aware of himself as player or of the activity of playing, nor of anyone getting any benefit or result. Nothing is a means to an end. He is just immersed in whatever he is doing—to the degree that the line between the person and the activity disappears. There is no self consciousness. He just discovers and explores and wobbles and farts and it’s all in the magical moment of an eternal now.
For Lev, there is no world other than the ocean he is swimming in—which might be the living room carpet, or it could be a galaxy far away. It’s all equally fun.
I am beginning to think there may be hidden health benefits for us, as adults, if we learn to follow a baby’s lead. New research about Alzheimer’s and other age-related cognitive decay indicates that one of the best things you can do to stave off memory loss is to continue learning new things. When adults play with a baby, normally we tend to observe what they’re doing and then show them the “right” way to do it. We are always in the role of teacher, showing the baby something we know. So we are repeating our own patterns of knowledge, behavior, language and mental associations. There is no real chance for us to discover something new because we are codifying: this is how you walk, this is how you eat, this is how you throw a ball.
As an experiment, tonight while I was playing with Lev before his bedtime, I decided that rather than leading the activity, I would follow, observe and learn from him. I tried to emulate his every sound and gesture, to copy his movements.
Allowing the creativity of a one year-old to become your guide and teacher completely changes the experience of playing with your child. First of all, I’m sure on some level the baby is aware you are following his lead, so that’s a great way to empower a kid at an early age. More importantly, because you’re learning from his authentic, on the spot, present-minded spontaneity, it’s also a wonderful way to relate to a child. You surrender the role of being the teacher, and instead you become a follower, an observer and co-discoverer. And the baby becomes an entry point for you to return to your own long-forgotten sense of child-like wonder.
We played like that for a while, and when Lev finally wound down and began to fall asleep in my arms, I realized another gift he had given me. I couldn’t check my phone, or work on the laptop, or turn the radio on, or work, or do anything. At that moment, all I could do was sit in the dark, holding my son, listening to his breath and mine slow down.
Thank you, Lev. What a fantastic and effortless teacher you have become. Tomorrow I’ll show you how to use Snapchat.
Sex and Babies
It’s a truism that having a baby isn’t good for one’s sex life, at least in the short term. There are some truths to most stereotypes, but reality is more complicated than these tropes suggests.
For example, while many couples do report having less sex the first few months after having a baby, most people assume that’s because they’re too exhausted.
There are many obvious reasons. Maybe the baby’s sleeping in your room, and when you finally have time alone with your beloved, neither of you thinks anything is more exciting than passing out. Simply putting your head on a pillow and shutting your eyes begins to seem like an erotic idea. Just thinking of it makes you smile.
But I’ve begun to wonder if that’s not the real issue. To answer the question of why we may have less sex after a baby arrives, first we have to look at what sex means. Obviously, there are differences between the genders on this issue. For starters, most men are basically savages. If we’re honest about the meaning of sex, for most guys it includes these things:
1. Sex feels good. Yes, but that’s perhaps the least important element.
2. It allows us to feel like we are emotionally closer to our partner. True, but sex is also a way we get closer to “owning,” “controlling” and “protecting” our female mate from other male competition. (See “men are savages,” above.)
3. It also gives us the opportunity to brag to other male friends about our sexual conquests — peacock behavior that indicates we are driven as much by desire for male approval as female adoration; so much so that the latter becomes a means to attaining the former. (See “all men are kinda gay if you think about it.”)
Women reading this are probably thinking: That’s weird. None of that makes any sense. Because what sex means to women is more like this:
1. Emotional warmth. More important than the sex itself, I want to be held, cuddled and loved in a way that makes me feel safe, celebrated, understood and adored. Sex makes me feel closer with my man and I give myself to him as a sign of my love and trust in him.
2. (OK, sometimes I also just get horny.)
The point is, each gender has different values they attach to sex. (Obviously this varies among individual men and women and I am wildly generalizing. Also I get most of my facts from comic books and daydreams.)
In any event, when a baby arrives, the newborn provides something special to both parents which, if this were a venn diagram, would overlap with different areas of what each gender tends to get from sex: a sense of boundary-less intimacy.
With a newborn, you spend a lot of time laying in bed, half-asleep cuddling with a tiny angel who smiles and laughs and makes you feel like the world has melted into cotton candy, time has stopped, and someone is playing a sitar in the background.
Various endorphins and a chemical called oxytocin start rushing through your brain. This happens both when you cuddle a baby and when you have sex. So from a neurobiological point of view, some of the dopamine rewards are similar. Basically your coconut is awash in Cuervo Gold.
The problem with all this sex-less happiness is it turns men into Paul Rudd. We walk around grinning and wearing an apron. We find ourselves baking banana loaf, watching “Smilla’s Sense of Sorrow,” and knitting. We start listening.
(This assumes for the moment you’re not Ben Affleck, and you don’t have a personal assistant who arranges for your wife, Jennifer Garner, to stay home with the kids so you can take the nanny to Vegas for a little cuddling.)
And yet, for a brief shining moment, you have achieved happiness.
Happiness is a state in the human brain; everyone wants it but we don’t know how to get it. Even Ben Affleck doesn’t know how to get it. Exhibit A: the fact that he (like many other dads) is still chasing sex when he could be enjoying the same endorphin rush just by spending some quality time with his newborn. That way, the wife’s happy, the baby’s happy, you’re happy and nobody has to go to Vegas.
Fox News, however, is not happy. They call this radical shift of what masculinity means “the “pussification” of America.
I find this odd for two reasons: first, using the term “pussy” as a sign of weakness, makes no sense.
A pussy is one of the most powerful and resilient things in the world — it can stretch large enough to give birth to a 10 pound baby. (Whereas, we commonly use the word “balls” as a sign of strength. Try stretching your balls to 10 times their size and see how that works out.)
The real question is: What’s wrong with pussification? If it means replacing confederate flags, guns and the NFL with gender-neutral bathrooms, Hillary Clinton, and facts, I say bring the whiskers. If being the kind of dad who doesn’t want his son to get brain damage playing high school sports is a sign of moral decay, then call me kitty.
Still, I can understand why the old guard is resistant to change. Less obvious is why they’re blaming female genitalia for this bewildering new world.
One of Donald Trump’s supporters recently tweeted, “In an age of pussified political correctness, you have to respect the people who remain unfiltered @realDonaldTrump.”
The tweeter is a young beardo and professional card player named Dan Bilzerian — who accompanied his insight with a photo of himself and Trump in the ultimate ballsy act of enjoying a fruit platter and some bottles of Fiji water.
Let’s set aside the fact that both the candidate and his supporter were born into unimaginable wealth and hate vaginas. Let’s do the manly thing and start pointing fingers.
I say, let he who is without sin cast the first kidney stone. When it comes to America’s slide down the fallopian tubes, the real culprit is babies.
Children are the ultimate gateway drug for pussified behavior. First of all, they make you purr. Second, they have you thinking cleaning out a litter box would be kind of nice. And last, those of us who once were truly manly men are now telling bedtime stories and cooing and cuddling with our babies. We’ve given up chasing tail for chasing rugrats. Instead of changing the oil on a bitchin’ Camaro, we’re changing the diapers and cooking organic farrow.
And the secret is out. We’ve never been happier.
how to not go insane in 3 simple steps
A happy baby is a baby who knows there are rules. This is one of the great ironies of becoming a parent and it takes a while to figure out: Although babies bring chaos into your life, they don’t actually like chaos. Even though they make a huge mess, they actually prefer a nice tidy world, one in which they can depend on simple routines and reliable outcomes.
For example, sleep. When your baby is a newborn, none of this applies. When they cry you must leap out of bed even if you are deep in REM stage and run like a scalded ape through the night, violently smashing your knees and toes on all kinds of hardwood furniture which someone seems to have rearranged again, and pay no mind that you would pay a billion dollars to just fall back into that dream, you have to keep running with your broken toes and give the baby whatever he wants, whenever he wants.
That was then. Now that your infant is approaching the one year mark, something else is happening in his brain. His cries no longer signify a primal need. Instead, he is figuring out one of the basic laws of the universe: cause and effect.
At about a year old, a baby begins to learn something important when he realizes, 'Hey. If I do this, the big nosed one does that. If I shriek at 4am, he or the soft faced one with the milk, will come get me.'
At this point, the baby really doesn’t want to be the boss but you will notice your home is a lot like Iraq after the fall of Sadaam Hussein. There’s a power vacuum and if you don’t step up and be the strongman, ISIS or your baby will fill it.
If you want a really crazy boss who makes you run around and do all kinds of cruel tasks before the sun rises, all you have to do is keep waking up whenever he cries.
But instead, follow these three simple rules.
1. If he wakes up while it’s still dark out, go to the crib and explain that nighttime is when people sleep and that you don’t want to be awake before the sun rises as you are not a garbage man or a rooster.
2. When he keeps crying, be like, Bro. Mommy and me are gonna go back to sleep so cry all you want but we don’t want to wake up yet.
He will keep crying but bury your head with a pillow and tell yourself this is not selfish. You’re actually doing something very kind. You are helping him develop patience. You are giving him the greatest gift a wise parent can share: clear boundaries. You are teaching him that normal humans don’t wake up when it’s still dark out.
There’s a famous study in which children were left alone with a marshmallow and told to wait as long as they could before eating it. The kids who waited longest had the most successful lives. The ones who gobbled the sweets with no self control all ended up in prison. So tell yourself, by allowing junior to cry now, you are teaching him the self discipline that will make him a CEO and save him from being a crack addict hobo. (The study I am referring to is widely known, and I’m paraphrasing some details. But facts require naps, and I can’t get fussy about either right now.)
3. A few minutes later, admit you are too weak to stand the sound of your baby crying and give in. His tears will still be wet on his face as you cuddle this beloved little jihadi. He has won. And you have both lost.
There’s always tomorrow.
I’ve always wanted a house with a pool. But I live in New York City where homes don’t tend to have private pools unless you earn your living, say, stripping the Russian state of its natural gas supplies. Since I don’t have that kind of job, I remain pool-less.
However, I live a block away from Central Park where there is a huge public pool. I’ve lived in this apartment for over 20 years and have never gone to the pool.
Lasker Pool is located at the very top of Central Park near 110th street in what used to be a rough neighborhood. The pool is run by the city and has some rules related to gang activity (you cannot wear a T-shirt any color other than white for example) and in the past there have been fights and shootings but one day towards the end of summer, the temperature was in the 90s so we decided, it’s worth getting shot. Let’s take Lev to the pool for the first time.
We arrived at 2:30 p.m. There were about 150 people swimming, but the pool is easily six times the size of an Olympic pool so it wasn’t crowded. According to the park’s website, the pool can fit 1,875 swimmers at once so you wouldn’t think it would ever be all that crowded.
I wouldn’t say we were the only white people there, since Michelle is half Chinese but let’s just say it was like the opposite of a Connecticut country club. We got to the front gate and a guard told us they wouldn’t let us in because it was 2:30 p.m. and for some insane reason they close the pool in the middle of the day from 3:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. and to do that, they stop allowing people in at 2:30 p.m.
That was frustrating since it was so hot the asphalt was melting and we had walked five miles pushing Lev in the stroller, anticipating the pool the whole time. But since we had come this far we decided to wait. So we laid down on some grass nearby and waited until 4:00 p.m. By the time we returned to the pool, another hundred people were waiting in line, and it took until 4:30 for us to get back to the front gate.
Police were eying the crowd and a large security guard approached and asked to see our lock. I said, “What lock? I don’t believe in private property. Can’t you see my Bernie Sanders for President button?”
He said, “You can’t come in without a lock. Someone might steal your sneakers. And you aren’t allowed on the pool grounds wearing sneakers.”
I said, “I don’t care if someone steals my sneakers, I’ll walk home barefoot.”
He said, “Sorry bro, you can’t come in without a lock.”
One nice thing about being with Lev is he tends to melt everyone’s heart and just then a guy in line behind us said, “Here, I have an extra padlock, take mine.”
It was a Thanksgiving miracle in the middle of August. Saved by the kindness of a stranger, we edged closer to the entrance, our mouths watering at the thought of that cool blue water, so close yet so far.
We had been waiting for two hours and were all pink and sweaty when we finally got the entrance. There, another security guard asked to see our bathing suits. I showed her mine and she said, “That’s not a bathing suit, those are running shorts”
I said, “Yes, I plan to run in the pool.”
She said I couldn’t come in. Next she asked to see Michelle’s bathing suit, which she also rejected because it was cotton. Then she asked to see Lev’s swim diapers. I said, “Come on, now you’re just making up words.”
I explained that we had waited two hours to get into the pool and she explained we were not getting in. So we slumped back home, another five-mile walk in the heat. I was feeling pretty defeated as we pushed Lev up the infamous Harlem hill, which is a very steep incline at the northwest corner of Central Park. A large black man, very sweaty, came running down the hill backwards and yelled at us for being in his way. As he passed us, he called either me or Michelle or Lev the N word.
Lev said, “Dad, did that guy just call me “bigger?”
I explained the history of racial inequality in our country and how Africans were brought here as slaves and how now sometimes black people will call each other the N word, and occasionally even yell it at white people. Lev looked startled.
“Wait,” he asked. “I’m white?”
Since Michelle is half Chines, a quarter Italian and a quarter Czech and I am Jewish, none of our grandparents would have been allowed into a white country club, but I explained how nowadays there were people of color and we were not considered people of color. Lev started screaming that he didn’t want to be see-through or an albino. I told him it’s ok. We were people of non color and we had a long colorful history of colorlessness to be proud of. But not too proud since a lot of that history involved doing bad things to people of color. And suddenly I remembered being five years-old and standing in the bathroom watching my father shave and him explaining to me how we had done some terrible things to native Americans, and thinking, Wait. I’m only five. What did I do to the native Americans? And he said, “No, you idiot, not you personally. Just ‘we’ in general.”
Anyway, we slumped home and I took Lev’s little plastic bathtub up on the roof deck, filled it with water and made him his own private swimming pool. We had a merry time splashing and laughing and enjoying life in a penthouse with a private albeit tiny rooftop swimming pool.
Later that night, at 4:00 a.m., Lev woke up crying and Michelle asked me to take care of him for the rest of the night. She said Lev could smell her breast milk and that was what was waking him up, so she went to sleep on the couch and I layed in bed with Lev on my chest. He was twiddling and scritching at my nipples and wondering why no milk was coming out.
And although it was 4:00 a.m., an hour when some people like to sleep, I realized I was happy. Because after all, how much longer would my son want to lay on my chest and scritch around for milk? And even if he still wanted to in the future, he would simply be too large and crush me. Michelle measured Lev the other day and he is now in the 80th percentile for height. I assume he didn’t get his basketball player genes from me. (While I’m not technically a dwarf, and I did used to date a lot of models, I had to use a stepladder to get to their boobies.) In any event, as Lev’s warm little body snuggled on me, I tried to mentally fast forward and picture some 6 foot four semi-Asian dude sprawled on top of me, and I couldn’t help pushing him off me.
He cried a little and then we both laughed and wrassled a little more. Michelle was upstairs on the couch, so she couldn’t hear Lev and me giggling.
At last at 5:00 a.m., we drifted off to sleep, with Lev, wrapped around my knee cap.
We may not have a swimming pool but life is good if you know how to dive in.
Of course, it’s nice to go on vacation to islands with private beaches. But one drawback of getting away from it all — which every parent hopes will not become an issue — is that you’re also far away from healthcare if there’s an emergency.
One day during a recent vacation, I noticed Michelle walking a quick pace along the beach. I thought she was taking Lev for a stroll but my heart began to race as I got closer and saw her gesturing in a panic for me to come ashore.
Long story short, Lev had been sleeping on a couch, where I had left him surrounded by pillows, but he woke up and like a feral weasel managed to climb over the wall of pillows and dive headfirst into the floor. There was no blood but a large red mark and an ominous purple bruise forming on his forehead.
I sprinted from the beach to the car and simultaneously managed to get out of my wet bathing suit and dress myself while driving at a speed sufficient to momentarily distract Michelle from her primary worry about Lev.
It goes without saying that it’s not a good idea to drive fast while undressing and dressing. But the panic a parent feels when your baby is hurt gives you superhuman powers and/or terrible judgment. Either way, we made it to the hospital and burst into the emergency room, at which point I began to cry. Not because Lev seemed to be badly hurt. In fact, he was back to his usual charming self. But I felt so scared and guilty at having betrayed my most fundamental duty, to protect my son from harm, and when I looked into his eyes all I saw was uncomprehending love. As I wept he gently stroked my chin, as if to reassure me, which only made me cry harder.
We sat down in the waiting room, and I began to get a grip. For one thing, an emergency room waiting area is a good place to practice compassion since nobody there is having a good day. For another, everyone kept walking over and remarking how cute Lev is. I asked the nurse for an ice pack, but Lev didn’t seem too fond of that, so I tried to trick him by playing peekaboo with the ice.
Two hours later we got called in and a kindly male nurse who weighed approximately as much as a stalk of asparagus, took Lev’s vitals. After that we waited in a small rundown room to see the doctor. His name was Stephen, and he looked like a young John Denver. He looked in Lev’s ears and eyes and throat and listened to his heartbeat and reassured us that Lev would be OK but also that we did the right thing by taking him to the hospital as there had been the possibility of a concussion.
When we woke up this morning, Lev had magically healed the bruise, like Spider-Man. It was 5am and I wasn’t even annoyed to wake up and make him his damn formula. I laid back down in bed with Lev on my chest and held his tiny, fragile body, feeling him breathe four times for every one of my inhalations, his heart pittering and pattering like a hummingbird, and mine breaking slowly into a million little pieces at the realization that I could not possibly exist in a world without him.
Then he farted and slapped me across the face and said, “Don’t be such a wanker all your life, dad.” And we both fell asleep knowing our world was okay and would never be the same.
Nip And Tuck
When you have a baby, the nurses will tell you a few key things at the hospital before discharging you, like don’t shake your newborn and don’t feed it pizza. That’s all I remember. You’re sent home with a little machine that makes fudge and screams. What they don’t tell you is that your baby will learn, in predictable phases, to do everything we adults take for granted, like chew food, have a neck that works, and imitate Stewie from Family Guy.
Fortunately, Michelle found an app based on a book called The Wonder Weeks, which sends you an email every week telling you what to expect. Each passage is written in a fun upbeat way, like: “Week 18. Congrats! Your child is going through a new phase. He will scream all night for a while and poop in his pants.”
I pointed out to Michelle that while the writers at The Wonder Weeks try to pretend that there is more to say, that’s pretty much every phase for the first few hundred weeks. The writing is sort of like an astrology report in a free newspaper: Your baby can now drool. He will be on the lookout for new opportunities. Embrace bold moves. This is a good time to travel. Also this week will be a good time to buy some new shirts, as your old ones are covered in drool.
Eventually, the baby’s growth spurts become dramatic. First your baby starts to notice things. Then he learns to make gurgling sounds, one day he gets his first teeth and starts to binge watch Orange is the New Black.
With each new phase, the app warns you that whatever new growth spurt your baby goes through will be accompanied by a regression. So for example, when the baby learns to crawl, he will begin cursing at you under his breath. When he first eats solid food, he will take up smoking cigarettes again. Once he learns to speak he will never shut up, ever.
I long ago accepted that one’s job as father is essentially to be a pack mule with a wallet. And I’m okay with Lev’s weird quirks, like the fact that he was Minnie Riperton in a past life, and now demands that we play the video for “Loving You” 30 times a day. Fine. The problem is that Lev is in a new phase this week, which the Wonder Weeks didn’t tell us about. He has grown razor sharp talons where his adorable baby fingers used to be and has begun learning to use his opposable thumb and index finger. That’s a great leap and part of what separates homosapiens from more primitive pre human species.
Ordinarily, I would be a proud father, thrilled that my son can now pinch. Unfortunately Lev has taken to using this newfound power to pinch my nipples. He literally pulled himself up to a standing position by holding onto my nipples like they were gymnastic rings. I thought they were going to come off.
I don’t have very large nipples to begin with. Or at least, I didn’t used to. Now they look like curly fries.
I woke up this morning and Lev had somehow made it from his crib into our bed and attached his claws to my nipples. I was still half asleep by the time he had mounted me and was sitting on my chest like a UFC fighter, with an ominous glare in his eyes.
He wasn’t looking at me. He was looking through me with an expression that said, “This is it. I’m taking these things with me.” He had gotten a hold of my left nipple and was twisting it in a spiral fashion that was causing me to shriek reflexively.
When a man has his nipples pinched for long enough, his mind starts to do strange things. I gasped and tried to ask Michelle for help. But she was too tired and one of her eyeballs was hanging out of its socket. Meanwhile, Levward Scissorhands just kept working his hands into my chest with the strength of the insane.
I was praying that somehow his next phase might be that his fingernails fell off and/or that we had bandaids. (Have you ever noticed how you never have bandaids when someone rips your nipples off?) I howled at Michelle for help but if you look up the word “schadenfreude” in the dictionary there’s a picture of Michelle smiling at you because now you know how she feels, since Lev is still nursing despite having grown two brutally sharp shark teeth.
So anyway, I used to have nipples. They’re vestigial anyway, and served no purpose. And now my shirts fit better. In the meantime, I’m enjoying The Wonder Weeks, taking Lev for strolls in Central Park. I feel like a child again myself, joining his sense of excitement and appreciation as he discovers the world.
Each moment is new for him, and as I observe him it reminds me to be fully present and open to the splendor of experiencing whatever is happening now. As I watch him take in new sights and sounds, my mind takes a cue from his endless curiosity, my chest swells with pride, and the place where my nipples used to be quietly throbs.
I’m really looking forward to the next phase, when the baby starts sleeping through the night. Or wearing oven mitts.
Whichever comes first.
Since long before Lev arrived, one of my gravest concerns was the issue of sleep. I was worried that I would not be able to maintain the construct of my personality — which let’s be honest, is a fairly high-energy consumption device — unless I were still able to sleep on the reg.
I steeled myself for 6 weeks, two months maybe, at the very outside, worst case scenario, three months. I mean. This is my own flesh and blood we’re talking about here. How could junior not enjoy a nice up close silent confrontation with a mattress for 8 hours at a pop just like his pop? No worries.
It’s now been 7 months without a solid night of sleep. I have been having the following conversation with Michelle several times a week:
Me: Hey, I was thinking. What do you say, just for a larf, tonight we ignore Lev and let him cry for maybe — I don’t know — 30 seconds before we go to him and serve him sandwiches with the crust off, just like he likes it, at 3:00 a.m.?
Michelle: I will rip your arms and legs off and beat you to death with your severed limbs if you come between me and my crying baby.
Michelle: Sorry. Wait. That came out wrong. I meant to say, I read an article online that says if you sleep train your baby by letting him cry it out, he will grow up to be insane and or work for the post office and or hate you forever, so, no. We should just keep going with the current system.
Me: But I can’t feel my face. One of my toenails fell off. I forgot my middle name. Also, is this really good for Lev — that he wakes up and eats three more dinners in the middle of the night? He’ll grow up to be some obese court stenographer, living in Queens with a thyroid disorder.
We would have this exact same conversation, right down to the punctuation, at least every 48 hours. It was making us all insane. But the other night we finally came up with a compromise that we both agreed on. You know how everyone says that when it comes to getting a baby to sleep through the night, there is no one right way — you just kind of try everything and ultimately nothing really works, until one day the kid is leaving for college and you’re basically just one giant puffy sack of baggy eyes, and that’s it, who told you to have a kid in the first place, dummy, and get your eye off my shoe.
But they’re wrong. There is a way. It’s simple. Reverse psychology 101.
We decided to just do the opposite of what everyone says.
As soon as Lev has fallen asleep, Michelle and I both start crying. This of course, wakes Lev and the moment he finally gets back to sleep, we both start crying at the top of our lungs for no apparent reason. Then, we take turns suckling at his nipples, and since we have teeth, that leaves him sore all day. Then in the morning we just casually drop some overdue credit cards bills into his crib to wake him up. And we mutter stuff to him all day like, “Oh what? No, daddy’s fine. I can just go sell some more blood at the blood bank, so you can lay around eating organic bananas. I’m good. And hello? Upside: mosquitoes no longer bite me. And by the way, nice two front teeth. Adorable, and razor sharp. P.S. Thanks, mommy used to have nipples.”
This combination of sleep deprivation and sarcasm has been working great. We put him to bed tonight and he slept almost 18 minutes before I had to carry him around the living room, swimming through the night kitchen in loops like those sad polar bears who committed suicide at the Central Park Zoo. I sang him all the songs I remembered from Hebrew School, which—in combination with the sheer force of my Hebrew magnetism, seems to be making him more jewish-ish. He recently told me he wants to become a CPA. I mean. What nachas.
But being a proud father hasn’t made me a masochist. I refuse to die from lack of sleep like that family in Italy that has that horrifying ultra rare genetic disorder where they all get fatal incurable insomnia and die slowly from being unable to sleep. No, I plan to go out the more noble way.
Weeping softly, in the fetal position.
This chapter brought to you by Aleve PM.
Just like Tylenol PM, but slightly cheaper at Target.
Something got me thinking about holidays lately, and I was reflecting on which is my favorite when I realized that hands down, it’s Father’s Day. I have only had one so far, and it was awesome. In years, gone by, I never gave much thought to Father’s Day. I appreciate my own father, who is a fantastic human being, but still, the holiday was mainly an excuse to eat bagels and lox, and occasion for anxiously wondering what kind of gift I could get him. A shirt? A watch? Having recently experienced my first Father’s Day, I learned something surprising about what men really need on this holiday.
As fathers, we have a weird biological imperative to provide. Something is hardwired into our caveman brains — analogous to the nurturing impulse that most women feel when they have a baby. It fills us with a sudden impulse to go out and gather berries, or club a wildebeest.
From the day we become fathers, we stop sleeping in and instead wake up in a panic, run outside and drag something home to eat. If we are super dads, we might even get a strange urge to patch that leaky roof on our cave, which never seemed to matter that much when it was just a place for a bunch of hairy dudes to hang out.
We do these things not because our wives nag us, though they do, nor because we should provide for our family. We do them because of some primordial impulse to take care of our young. Perhaps, as Richard Dawkins suggested in his book “The Selfish Gene,” we aren’t even making the choice — it’s something in our DNA that takes over, making sure we do whatever possible to ensure that our gene pool replicates and survives.
Whatever the case, most men who become fathers feel an urgent desire to earn enough money to buy diapers and food. It’s not that I didn’t care about earning a living before Lev arrived, but now there is a primal intensity, a sense that this is my crucial responsibility. It’s like a bonfire has been set inside my heart, and it causes me to run out into the streets, and stalk the aisles of Trader Joe’s, eyes wild, fangs and claws blazing. There is now a feral urgency about my food-shopping missions. I may look more like Jack Black as I search for tangerines, but I feel like Hugh Jackman as the Wolverine.
When a man is on a vital mission, he doesn’t feel any self-consciousness. Whether we’re stalking Osama Bin Laden as part of Seal team 6, or looking for organic butt wipes at Duane Reade, we go about the task with grim determination, and do-or-die attitude. We aren’t looking for thanks. We’re just doing our job.
Which is why I was surprised by how much hearing the words “thank you,” meant to me on my first father’s day. I hadn’t been expecting the expression of gratitude, nor my emotional reaction. I now realize how much that sense of being acknowledged and appreciated had been missing. It’s not that we fathers need a ticker tape parade down 5th Avenue, or a new tie, but when you give us those things, as much as we’re ashamed to admit it, we really appreciate being appreciated.
It’s not that being a father is anything valiant. It’s that, from a purely biological point of view, we have imbued the ordinary task of running out to CVS for diapers with some insane combination of heroism and hormones. Our testosterone has been tested. The hypothalamus gland — which produces a rush of adrenalin during fight, fuck or flee situations — has been working overtime for the last 7 months. It’s like a fire hydrant was left open in the back of your skull, gushing oxytocin and serotonin and Lord knows what other chemicals down your spine. You haven’t slept or shaved for weeks. Your vision is blurry. Your hands are shaking. Did she say “Baby’s Best organic soy GMO-free baby formula?” or “Earth’s Finest non-dairy gluten-free baby formula?” It’s not even 7:00 a.m., and you’re tired. But dammit, you’re going to get this formula and bring it home like a freshly killed elk strapped across your shoulders, even though, wait—how could this crap possibly be $37?
And then you wake up on Father’s Day, and there among a pile of gifts you see a note:
“To the most gentle, strong, brave, wise man I know. Since Lev arrived, I have witnessed your heart explode with more joy than either of us could imagine. I am in complete awe, watching you tenderly, feed, change, bathe, and dress this little man who trusts and adores your every move. You went from being the man I love to the father of our wonderful child. I am grateful and excited to be experiencing this journey with you. Happy Father’s Day. I love you.”
At first, I wasn’t sure who the note was from. Could have been Michelle, or Lev. It would have been weird if Lev referred to himself in the third person, but still... that handwriting... I couldn’t be sure. So I asked them both and Lev didn’t answer. So that left Michelle as the probable writer.
But even if it was from Michelle, the last letter “O” in the phrase “I love you” at the end of the letter was a little hard to read. It was possible it said “I love Yu,” in which case, the entire note might have been written to Mrs. Yu, the Chinese lady, who lives on the floor below my apartment. It was hard to be sure. Mail often gets mis-delivered.
Even though I was probably fooling myself, I pretended the note was to me, and dammit, it felt good to be appreciated.
So Happy Father’s Day, y’all.
And Mrs. Yu, I have a letter for you.
losing the dad bod
What’s that? You don’t know what a Dadbod is? Don’t feel bad. I’d never heard of the Dadbod either, until I woke up the other day and realized I couldn’t see my toes.
Despite having been the one who carried the baby in her womb, Michelle somehow snapped back to her lithe dancer’s figure a few months after giving birth, but I still look like 10 pounds of chopped meat in a 5-pound bag, only less delicious.
For the 35 years before Lev was born, I worked out two or three hours a day, and while I never looked that good, I did manage to stave off the usual vagaries of aging and gravity to some degree. But being a new dad comes with a Dadbod, which is like your old body but it doesn’t fit into any of your clothes, and doesn’t look good when it’s not covered up.
This is especially problematic since my niece Sonia is getting Bat Mitzvahed in three days, and the only suit I own is something I had custom-made while I was in Thailand two years ago, when I was on a tour of Thailand’s kickboxing camps. I kick-boxed my way across the country, studying with various Muy Thai masters from the Islands on both the east and west coasts of Thailand and in grimy gyms on the back streets of Bangkok. That was awesome, except the part where I got punched it the face a lot. While I didn’t become a Muy Thai champion, one positive result was that when I went to get measured for the suit, I was in the best shape of my life.
I went to the Thai tailor with a Queer Eye for the Straight Guy friend, and both he and the tailor kept suggesting they make the suit tighter and tighter, until I looked like Ryan Seacrest wrapped in Saran Wrap. Ultimately, when I tried it on for the first time, the suit fit OK, I guess, except you could see my veins bulging through the fabric. And I knew that if I gained even one centimeter of girth, the suit would not fit.
I woke up last Saturday and realized I had one week to lose the Dadbod or I would be unable to wear the only suit I own to my niece’s Bat Mitzvah. At the same time, my ankle started hurting, so I couldn’t rely on my usual workouts to lose weight—running, jumping rope or kicking the heavy bag. And so, with my main sources of exercise off the table, for the first time I decided to try a diet.
Instead of my usual egg and cheese on a bagel, for breakfast, I would eat only oatmeal. For lunch, salad. For dinner, salad. No beer.
How hard could that be?
By 9am on day one of the Dadbod Diet, Michelle had locked herself in the bathroom, and was hiding with Lev while I was banging on the door with a spatula in one hand and drool running out of my mouth yelling, Get in my belly. Technically, I’m not a cannibal but I was so ravenous, the couch was starting to look tasty and trust me, the couch does not taste good. I tried it.
Rather than eat the furniture, Michelle and Lev, and because the bathroom door is stronger than it looks, I relied on old-fashioned will-power. I made it until 9:15am. I was in the elevator on the way to 72d Street Bagel, when I caught a glimpse of my giant bloated face in the mirror. I looked like John Travolta if you left him in a swimming pool overnight. And somehow the combination of self-loathing and shame and hating John Travolta was strong enough to get me to turn back and stick to the diet for another few hours.
Somehow, I made it through the day, a grumpy hungry fatty, and the next morning, I stepped on the scale with both eyes closed. Like a man about to read a biopsy report, I slowly opened one eye and glanced down. Boom. I had lost 7 pounds overnight! Suit saved, Bat Mitzah fashion nightmare averted, Dadbod vanquished!
Then I opened the other eye and realized there was a decimal point on this damn scale. I had only lost .7 pounds.
Still, reason to celebrate.
And what better way to celebrate than with lasagna. If the Lord hadn’t wanted us to wear sweat pants to a Bat Mitzvah he wouldn’t have invented mozzarella.
Relationships are hard. Conflict is everywhere. Lately, Michelle has been trying to blame Lev’s farts on me, even though — and I swear I am not making this up — only one of us can hiccup and fart at the same time, and it’s not me. (Tried. Can’t.)
Even with a child as sweet as Lev, there is occasional friction. For example, I am a fan of the Austin Powers movies, whereas Lev hates the joke when the obese Scottish character says, “I ate a baby.” These are areas where we agree to disagree. One major disagreement we have is, I like to wash my hands after visiting the bathroom. He poops in his pants and pees on himself in the bath. So we occasionally have beef, when I’ll be like, “Bro, you literally just mashed peas all over the table and the floor.” And he’ll be like, “True, but I’m adorable so I get away with it.”
At which point, I have to say, “Kudos, O worthy opponent, I could only have hoped you wouldn’t have raised that powerful debate point, to which there is no possible objection, carry on flinging peas into my hair.”
But when it comes to Ljubomir, I have to stand my ground.
Ljubomir is our elevator repairman. He is in our building with sufficiently disturbing frequency that I have learned the broad outlines of his life story. He is an ethnic Macedonian but was raised in Romania where his father was a government minister and he enjoyed a playboy lifestyle: fast cars, night clubbing and hair gel—in his chest hair as well as the thick curly black slavic hair on his head. The only issue in what sounds like it must have been an otherwise idyllic life of chasing ladies named Olga, eating herring, and dancing to techno, was that his father expected more of Ljubomir and would beat him savagely when Ljubomir came home to the family palace after a night of carousing. Also, there was a war in the Balkans.
And so Ljubomir moved to America and fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming an elevator repairman. He is about 5 foot 10 and of ample girth, and somehow often tends to be bending over, exposing his hairy butt crack, and he is always, always, drenched in sweat and looks as if he has just run up a flight of stairs carrying a heavy wrench, which he usually has. His eyes are also generally bugging out of his head and he appears to be constantly panicked and on the verge of having a heart attack.
Anyway, for some odd reason—and I’m not complaining—Ljubomir loves me like no man or woman ever has. He literally would give me his wife if I asked, and probably even if I didn’t ask. With other tenants of the building he is irrationally harsh and often bullying—but no matter what insanely dumb illegal thing I do—such as running a combination carwash/disco/strip club in the basement during summer months, Ljubomir just grins at me and offers to help carry out my trash. This is mystifying, but since it’s also got a lot of benefits, I don’t question him. He isn’t literally in love with me, he just likes me a lot. And enjoys spooning on rainy afternoons.
Anyway, Ljubomir’s hands are generally covered in black greasy filth that extends from a thick granular cream under his finger nails (which, as you have surmised, are disturbingly long) and continues up past his elbows, towards the area where his chest hair, side burns and arm pit hair meld in an unholy alliance, and taper off into the thick bristly mat of fur that coats his forearms. Ljubomir is a fiercely loyal and hairy man, and not overly concerned with hygiene.
And this gets to the heart of my recent disagreement with Lev. When Ljubomir meets Lev in the elevator, he inevitably strokes Lev’s face with his hands—from which I literally see billions of e coli bacteria swarming onto my innocent child’s face.
Yesterday, Ljubomir went to grab Lev’s fingers, and Lev wrapped them tightly around his bottle. So Ljubomir put his finger onto the top of the bottle nipple—the part Lev sticks in his mouth and sucks milk out of—and pushed his grimy index finger, covered in poopie water, Windex and boiler grease, on the top of the nipple and wobbled it back and forth.
Now, I don’t have an issue with Ljubomir. First of all, he’s my boyfriend. Second, he’s Macedonian and Romanian. If such a thing is even possible.
But Lev. Couldn’t you have at least had the decency to brush his hand away, the way you do mine, when, having just been scrubbed with hand sanitizer, I offer you a spoonful of organic mushed peas?
On the other hand, if Lev decides to do his junior years study abroad in eastern Europe, he will already be immunized. And if Lev ends up being an elevator repairman as well, so be it. In this era of alienated urban living, when nobody knows your name, it’s nice to have a touch of old world Europe in the apartment building.
It takes a village.
what to do when your baby discovers his banana
Lev turned 6 months old the other day and on his birthday, he earned real money for his first modeling gig. Our tiny Zoolander also ate fruit food for the first time that day — a banana.
This seemed like a major life milestone — our son eating real food — and I thought he was a total natural at it. He lunged his head towards the spoon with manic intensity and gobbled up every bite.
Our pediatrician had warned us to start with green foods — broccoli, peas, string beans — because they don’t taste as good — and slowly move towards foods like sweet potato, and save bananas for last, lest we give Lev a sweet tooth and he might never want to eat vegetables.
But we didn’t listen and alas, a few days later, when we tried to feed him carrots, he hated them and made a face like he had just eaten dog poo. So it’s not that he likes food, he’s just bananas.
Anyway, as far as life milestones go, eating solid food pales in comparison to awakening to one’s own sexuality. But tonight after I bathed Lev and massaged him with coconut oil—his evening bedtime ritual — I noticed that for the first time, he was grabbing his rod and tackle.
I called Michelle into the bedroom to see, thinking maybe he would get shy and self-conscious about it, but Lev just maintained a calm steady grip on his apricot.
Michelle felt he might want some privacy, but he wasn’t doing it in an onanistic way. He wasn’t even doing it like Michael Jackson used to. It was more the way a major league baseball player, or a farmer in Arkansas might casually grab his crotch. No shame at all, just very relaxed, nonchalant and intent on getting the job done.
It was a small gesture, one that lasted only about 30 seconds and then I put his diapers on and Lev and I laughed about it and agreed not to talk about the matter any further.
Something in our dynamic had shifted. He was no longer my sweet innocent baby child. Now, as I read him his bedtime book — (which for some reason happened to be about a baby with two dads, not sure who gave us that book) — the vibe was different.
For one thing, he kept laughing and pounding me on the back really hard, like a bro at a frat party. Then I noticed he was habitually pretending he had a mustache and kind of absent-mindedly tidying up the imaginary facial hairs with his fingers. Also, at some point, when I tried to put the book down, he slapped me across the face, really hard.
Now you can ascribe all this to normal pre-toddler behavior, but what startled me was when I leaned in to kiss him good night I noticed he was wearing Axe Body Spray.
I asked Michelle and she said she had certainly not approved the purchase, nor was she aware they made cologne for babies. So I just asked him, straight up: Lev, are you wearing Axe Body Spray?
And he said, “Yeah Pops, only I grew up in the ‘hood, so we pronounce it AskBody Spray.”
I was about to spank the daylights out of him for referring to Michelle’s womb as the ‘hood, when he added, “What are you staring at Broham?”
The first time your son calls you ‘broham,’ you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I chose the former, and Lev and I both had a good long chuckle about it, and agreed to just be bros from now on.
Because Lev may not like veggies. But he sure loves his garbanzos.
the day my son lost his food virginity
Food. Without it, we would be unable to think about 99% of the things that usually bother us.
Call it a design flaw, but we humans need to eat every few hours or we melt down.
In the old days, life was simple: you grew what you needed to eat, or you died. These days, we have Trader Joe’s, a blessing and a curse wrapped into one. Thus far, Lev has been spared the relentlessly cheerful and surprisingly affordable Trader Joe’s experience, as his diet has consisted of the primordial equivalent of sticking your head under a soda fountain and opening your Dr. Pepper Hole. He just suckles at the teet when hungry and we don’t cook or buy any food for him. Breast milk and organic GMO-free formula have been his only source of nutrients for the first six months.
But there comes a time in every young man’s life when he has to learn to spoon. We don’t like it, but we do it because in some way, our lives depend on it.
That fateful day arrived recently.
Michelle and I had gone through all the arguments about whether babies should eat rice cereal (which is full of arsenic so, no) or whether they can get any nutrition from oatmeal (no, since they lack amylase, the enzyme to break down carbohydrates) and whether it’s alright to serve infants red wine (not unless you live in France). After many discussions I convinced Michelle it was OK for Lev to eat some food - not for nutritional reasons but simply so he could learn the mechanics of using his tiny tongue to slurp food off a spoon, moving gruel to the back of his esophagus and swallowing it—a fairly complex series of moves which we call eating and generally take for granted.
We found BPA-free spoons from Sweden and purchased organic, gluten-free, whole-grain cereal at triple the price of normal baby food, and strapped Lev into a baby chair. I had a video camera, Michelle had a raincoat on, and we were ready.
We surrounded the unsuspecting child, our eyes heavy with anticipation and perhaps a waiting tear, in the event that our innocent lamb actually crossed the gastronomical Rubicon from breast milk to whatever the awful road it is that leads to Arbie’s.
We used a wooden bowl, in case in a tantrum of swatting, he smashed some porcelain. Instead, like a deer blinking in headlights, he opened his tiny mouth—a gap perhaps three centimeters across, and lapped at his first taste of semi-solid food—oatmeal, a strange new substance, like a drunken kitten, his miniscule tongue darting in desperate little flickers.
So overcome with pride and joy were we that we instantly violated all common sense and laws of parenting and tried to pour the entire bowl into his unsuspecting mouth, as if suddenly he were ready to do keg handstands.
Lev calmly choked and then kept eating.
Stay tuned for Chapter 29, in which Lev learns to use Excel spreadsheets and shows us how to install a hacked version of Microsoft Office on the new iPad.
An organic crib
There comes a moment in every father’s life, when it finally hits you: You are someone else’s dad.
This doesn’t necessarily happen when you find out you are going to have a baby, nor when the baby is born.
It happened to me today.
Today we got a crib. Until we saw this strange sleek birch piece of furniture assembled, somehow we didn’t realize we were really parents. Michelle said, “Now that I see that crib, it just hit me that we have a baby.” And I totally knew what she meant.
Here’s how you get a crib:
First, you go to Target and see a whole bunch of options that range from $100 to $400. You spend an hour wandering around Target, your soul getting numb on the weird cheerful ether of the place. A Target store is like stepping into an alternate world. Unlike Walmart, with its underlying white trash militia vibe, Target has a whiff of east coast elite about it — you are bathed in a florescent sense of manufactured optimism. It’s like one of those “almost” smiles that pretty girls are wont give you, the kind that’s so much worse than no smile at all. The sort of smile that flashes across a young model’s face when you try to say hello, a quick gesture that says, “Here’s what I would look like if I wanted to talk to you but don’t blink because that’s how long I can pretend that could ever be true.” That’s what it’s like to shop at Target.
You spend a good hour and a half in Target. Not because it takes you that long to realize all these Target cribs are both totally OK and also suck, but because you begin to wander the aisles. In the end, you don’t buy a crib at Target, but you do spend over a hundred dollars thinking you are saving money on enormous bags of cherry flavored licorice nibs and lady razors.
Then you think: Why should I spend $400 for a crappy crib at Target, when I can buy a used one that’s better quality for less money? You are clever.
You realize that other than weird sexual hook-ups with potential cannibals, a good deal on used furniture is precisely what craigslist was made for.
So you search for cribs on craigslist and suddenly you think, Michelle is right: you don’t want a crib from Ikea or Target — even though they cost less than a fancy haircut. Because chances are they were made in China. And the people who run the factories that make the wood for cribs sold at Target are men who don’t care if the wood is full of poisonous chemicals that will make your innocent baby demented.
(Later, 60 Minutes will do an expose on these factories, and the men who run them will lie to the cameras about these toxic chemicals. Later still, the Chinese Communist Party will purge these same lying factory managers in a ritual show trial of corrupt officials, but by then your baby will have gills.)
So Michelle was right. We should definitely buy a fancy Swedish crib called Oeuf, because anyone who makes wooden furniture in Sweden and names it after the French word for egg can’t be all that bad. This wood is guaranteed to be GMO-free and totally organic and now, suddenly, you’re having visions of Junior going to Exeter and Harvard and getting a job at Google, and you’re thinking, maybe the money you spent on this Swedish crib is worth it in terms of his brain development.
So you find a bunch of options and end up driving down to the west village and paying $700 for a store floor model. You buy what is actually a $1,100 crib and it’s organic, but it doesn’t fit in your car. So you pop the roof on your totally practical tiny convertible and drive home.
You think: Damn. I am really the man. I bought my son a fucking crib. And it’s totally made of gluten-free wood and looks like something Gwyneth Paltrow would own.
So although it’s late, and you are weary since last night your son decided to scream nonstop for the 8 hours you usually call “sleep” time, you begin to assemble the crib.
After about a half hour, you realize it’s missing a piece. And since you live in wonderful Manhattan and not the suburbs, that means running a mile to the garage where you pay $400 a month to park your stupid fancy car. The missing piece was indeed in your trunk.
You assemble the crib and realize the Swedes who wrote the instruction manual forgot to say, 'Don’t tighten those four bolts that require you to use weird a screwdriver at exactly a 56 degree angle until you have installed the side panels'.
So you loosen the 56-degree angle bolts, install the side panels, which have 12 screws to tighten, and then realize the side panels are upside down. The manual did not mention this was possible.
So you loosen the 56-degree angle bolts, remove the 12 screws, turn the side panels right side up, tighten it all and then realize you also installed the side panels inside out.
Remove the two bolts, 12 screws, flip the inside out side panels, tighten the bolts and screws, when you notice that: although this is scientifically impossible, one of the side panels is rotated in the wrong way such that it cannot hold the mattress pegs.
So you fix that, but then the little wooden pegs are in the wrong hole and so you get a pair of pliers, thinking, this isn’t hard at all, only every single thing that could go wrong, plus one thing that could only happen in the realm of advanced theoretical math just happened, but OK. Let me just use this pair of pliers and pull out the wooden peg and adjust it.
Then as you are screwing in the last of the 12 screws you notice it won’t go in. You have put the wooden peg into the wrong hole and blocked the screw.
Unscrew 12 more screws and 2 weird bolts — by the way, each time you adjust the 56-degree angle bolt it means laying on your back under the crib, and getting that feeling car mechanics and plumbers must feel, which is, I am too old to have a job that requires me to lay on my back on the floor and try to get a screwdriver into a slot at 56 degrees — and voila, You are almost done.
So then you put the mattress in and you stand there, and look at the crib.
And it hits you:
It was all worth it. Because this beautiful small warm angel, this soft, funny, sweet, vulnerable, tender loving rabbit, with tiny little peach fuzz growing on his lower back and his toothless smile, and his way of drooling on every new outfit within three minutes, is going to have his first real bed. And you are his father.
And dammit, you not only bought it and drove through midtown Manhattan traffic with this stupid thing sticking out of your totally practical sports car, but you assembled it. And it only took you 4 hours.
And you only look and feel bald and fat. You aren’t really. You’re superman.
Nice job, dad.
Said no one ever.
I’m not sure what’s more disturbing: the news that babies are born with 300 bones and yet as adults, we only have 206. Or the fact that I learned that from a Snapple cap.
But as a man of science, I had to find out why. It freaks me out to think that as I watch Lev, he is simultaneously growing and losing bones.
(Mystery solved: it’s not that bones disappear, but they fuse together. Ergo, one has to mind junior’s fontanel—it’s still soft. Which is why babies shouldn’t do headstands.)
If you’re like me, you spend most of your time sitting around pondering such mysteries. How did life originate? What is the identity of dark matter? Why do humans have chins?
Since both Lev and I were born with Kirk Douglas jawlines, I tend to focus more on life’s chin-related questions. Not because it’s easier than figuring out the meaning of quantum entanglement or how dark energy drives cosmic acceleration, but because a chin says a lot about a man. For one thing, it says you are human. Next time you’re at the zoo, notice that no other animal, other than the elephants, has a chin. Why is that?
An anthropologist in the Department of Orthodontics at the University of Iowa’s College of Dentistry came to the conclusion that we got our chins as a leftover result of our faces getting smaller as we evolved from archaic Homo sapiens to hipsters.
Of course, this also happened to correlate with the rise of Brooklyn as a brand and the trend towards everyone growing a lumberjack beard, which has obscured many chins.
But not Lev’s. As he doesn’t shave yet, I am able to observe his chin carefully, and notice how it looks like a Xerox of mine.
Some people say that the love you feel for your child is the ultimate form of narcissism, to which I say, “I’m sorry, did you say something? I was just distracted by my reflection in the mirror.”
As a species, we got our chins as a result of our head size shrinking, but Lev’s chin is growing (along with the rest of him). At this rate, by the time of his bar mitzvah, Lev’s jaw should be roughly the size and shape of a Christmas ham.
While I may not leave Lev a mansion and a yacht, perhaps I have endowed him with something more valuable. According to scientists who study attractiveness, strong male chins both attract mates and predict future professional success. On the other hand, if you’re one of those chinless wonders, keep your chin up. Darwin may be dead but evolution hasn’t stopped, and who knows what our chins will look like in a few millennia?
In the meantime, one of the cutest things Lev does is to grab my chin and squeeze it. Perhaps he does this out of the unconscious recognition that we have very similar looking chins. Regardless, until you’ve had your chin massaged by your own personal mini-me, don’t knock it.
On the other hand, sometimes in the midst of him rubbing my chin, I close my eyes in a state of bliss and then he reaches out and whacks me in the face. As a boxer, I try not to take anything on the chin, because, like falling in love, it’s the punch you don’t see coming that knocks you out.
But even if his tiny fists manhandle my face, these are fascinating, profound, intimate moments: he reaches out and beats me lightly about the jaw line, and I smile back at him. He’s exploring the movement of his hands in space, his depth perception, hand to eye coordination, and perhaps working out his unconscious oedipal complex. He hits hard for his size, but I wouldn’t trade these gleeful beat-downs for all the tea in China.
Not by the hair of my chinny chin chin.
in praise of the most high
My grandfather was a rabbi. My great grandfather was a rabbi. And so was my great-great grandfather. In fact, the line of rabbis on my mother’s side of the family stretches back 13 generations, in an unbroken line of scholars, spiritual seekers and wise men who, while trying to survive in the Jewish ghettoes of eastern Europe, spent their every moment pondering the deepest mysteries of life, ethics and the transcendent. So it should have come as no surprise that while we were sitting around the house the other day, out of the blue, Lev started saying, “God.”
He started softly at first, and then began growing in volume. Over and over and over. It wasn’t like he was saying, “Oh God!” More like just intoning the name of the primordial creator as if it was a mantra, rolling the word around in his mouth slowly and repeatedly, like it was a marble or a malted ball.
I didn’t want to be egotistical but impulsively I said, “Yes?” Technically, of course, I am not God, but I am sort of Lev’s creator, and in the absence of a burning bush, I figured I could answer his question. Also I didn’t want to assume he was talking to himself, as that would make him seem really crazy.
At nearly four months, Lev is going through a phase where infants move from cooing to babbling, and we all know what happened in the Tower of Babble. The other thing that happens at this stage in a baby’s development is they begin to make sounds with consonants. Like the word, God, for example.
But it turned out Lev wasn’t asking for God. He was declaring God: He looked at me with that look that says, “In the beginning there was the word. And the word was good. It was better than good. It was God.”
And I looked at him, like, “Did you say something, boo boo”?
And he looked at me like, “Yes, you idiot. Words have power. Thought mounted on the breath brings to life the power of truth. What part of Rastafarianism don’t you understand?”
And so Lev lay there, intoning the name of the Lord over and over, while I intermittently said, “Yes, for Chrissakes, what? What???”
But Lev just kept saying, “God.”
Actual transcript of conversation:
Lev: Not you, fatty. God.
Me: Really though, do you think I’ve gained weight? It’s weird, because I just joined a gym but I also feel kind of fat. Maybe it’s because muscle weighs more?
Lev: Right. Nice try. You look like you live on a diet of Pop Tarts.
Me: The package says they’re only 100 calories.
Lev: That doesn’t mean you can eat the whole box, saddle bags.
Me: Anyway, check out my lats.
Lev. Oh God.
This went on for a few hours until bedtime. I was reading him 101 Dalmatians and he got all excited and started pointing wildly at the drawings and yelling “God.”
It was then I realized he’s just dyslexic. He meant “dog.”
My theory was confirmed this morning when he saw me getting out of the shower and muttered, “It’s about time you shook a tower, Atty Farbuckle.”
As a man of science, I had to be certain. So as I layered him into his bassinet for his nap today, I put my lips close to his bulbous rosy cheeks and whispered, “Dweet streams, Vel.”
He smiled back with a look of recognition and love, and then made a soft cooing noise that sounded suspiciously like “You douche,” backwards.
Before you have a baby, everyone warns you to kiss sleep goodbye. “Good luck,” they say, with a smile full of schadenfreude. (I wonder why German is the only language with a word that means being happy when other people suffer.) They wish you luck the way someone who has just assembled a piece of IKEA furniture says good luck. Like, “I suffered beyond imagination to make something so wobbly I have to lean it against the wall, but at least now I can sit back and laugh while you discover this Riktig Ogla is never going to fit into that Grundtal Norrviken. But go ahead. Good luck.”
After all the warnings, I was duly scared about the sleep thing. And it’s true. I have not slept more than a few hours in a row for months. But what nobody tells you is how much joy you feel.
I just got up to pick up the baby and I realized that all my fears of being exhausted never materialized. Because when you lean into his crib and he sees you, he erupts into a smile like you just told him he won the $80 million Powerball lottery. That happens multiple times a day. His joy is so overwhelming and infectious that it’s impossible to feel tired or beleaguered. It’s like a tractor beam of sunlight hitting you in the face. It’s like drinking fresh squeezed orange juice. It’s like the opening chords of Stevie Wonder's “Sir Duke.” It’s like the first day of spring after a long cold winter. And it never gets tired.
There is a Buddhist prayer we recite every day, which says, “regardless of whether conditions seem favorable or unfavorable, inspire me to make a habit of happiness.”
Lev is a habit of happiness. He’s like a little 12-pound human Prozac. He can’t help smiling when he sees me first thing in the morning, or after a nap, or when I come home, or any time really.
Of course, this being samsara, there is a catch. The other key teaching of Buddha is to love without being attached. And if you thought avoiding attachment was hard with romantic love, it’s well nigh impossible with a baby.
Non-attachment doesn’t mean being a robot and having no human emotions. It means discerning between the warm, open-hearted side of pure love, and the sticky ego-influenced desire to control another person, a situation, or life in general. That sticky aspect is the glue that binds us suffering. It causes us to cling and destroys our happiness. So the real challenge of parenthood is to experience these incredible surges of joy without allowing a habit of clinging to immediately follow in equal measure.
A habit of joy arrives. It’s impossible for anyone to warn you how great it is so they warn instead that you will be sleepy. But what nobody warns you about—and what we really need—is a way to manage the lurking attachment that shadows this great love.
For that, the Buddha prescribed medicine—meditations of various kinds. But meditation works slowly and this tsunami of love and attachment doesn’t knock gently at the front door. It tears the house down.
A New pair of genes
Before we left the hospital with Lev, the nurse gave us a little lecture about how important it is not to shake the baby. We’ve all read about awful incidents in the newspaper often enough to realize why the state has now mandated this little chat with new parents—though I found it odd that they not only explain it, but make both parents sign a document promising we would not violently shake Lev.
He is about to turn three months old, and has been such a perfect baby that I have not even once felt the slightest impatience or frustration with him. Forget shaking him, I don’t even look at him with a frowning face. But clearly, many parents out there do lose patience, especially when their baby cries for nights on end, and that’s why it’s so important to educate people that your newborn is not a maraca.
In addition to the obvious moral reasons, there are also evolutionary reasons why you don’t want to harm your baby. According to his seminal 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene,” Richard Dawkins postulates that when we look at human history—the wars and famines, inventions, glories and failures—from the point of view of individual humans, we are totally missing the point. Dawkins suggested instead that the main agent of evolutionary history is the gene. We are all basically pawns being controlled by our genes, which are in a life or death struggle to succeed and transmit themselves to the next incarnation. (At least that’s what I recall—I read the book when I was 17.)
If I understand him correctly, Dawkins’ gene-centered view of evolution suggests that the more closely two people are genetically related, the more sense it makes (at the level of the genes) for us to behave selflessly with each other. It’s a scientific explanation for altruism.
In a nutshell, Dawkins’ idea is that organisms evolve in order to pass along the maximum number of copies of their genes—which works better when you don’t kill people who are related to you. Hence, there are not only ethical and karmic reasons but also evolutionary logic behind the fact that we shouldn’t bash each other in the head with a shovel just because someone left the toilet seat up.
This is a scientific basis for morality, not a religious one. But in this case, the two seem to agree. Which doesn’t mean it’s easy to be nice to everyone. As any non-hermits out there will have noticed, you will rarely encounter anything more annoying than other people. This universal phenomenon could be taken as a gift—an opportunity to practice patience. On the other hand, some gifts are better to give than receive.
According to Jewish law, one should never blame your child for the fact that you are slowly going insane. In fact, Judaism completely rejects the notion of original sin. According to Judaism, a child is born pure, completely free from sin. And as Dawkins points out, those are, after all, your genes in there, screaming at you and peeing on you. You are the one who put your butt on the Xerox machine and pressed the copy button.
As we approach the three-month mark, it is safe to say Michelle has definitely managed to avoid the baby blues, but it’s easy to understand why post-partum depression is pitfall for many new mothers. Not only because of the hormonal shifts a woman goes through, but also because of the societal expectation that you should be feeling totally blissful and blessed, when in fact, you might feel exhausted, scared and fat. For the father—speaking from personal experience—it’s thrilling to have a little Xerox of you. But suddenly you start to feel this weird caveman pressure to go out and gather berries, drag home an injured wildebeest, and worry about your stock portfolio.
Taken together, these pressures and the strangeness of having a new roommate who never cleans up after himself, can take their toll. Even if you don’t clinically suffer from post-partum depression, and even if there is no such thing for a dad—at some point the thought might pop into your head that life would be a lot easier if you were, say, dead.
Then you look down at that little bundle of your genes—squirming in a onesie, your DNA and RNA mingling with the genes of your beloved queen—and you are hit with a wonderfully liberating thought: it isn’t up to you. It’s your genes that are in control, struggling mightily to replicate and carry on their tangle of ribbons filled passionate intensity and the blueprints of a body to be.
The moral of the story is, Relax, sit back and enjoy the ride. Jesus may be your co-pilot. But it’s your genes that have their tiny fingers on the steering wheel.
Like any normal father of a newborn child, I spend most of my waking hours daydreaming about when Lev is old enough to be my buddy and we both get matching cowboy outfits and run around the house with broomsticks pretending to be in the Wild West.
Of course, I don’t do this all the time. Sometimes I also daydream about us buying WW2 army fatigues from a military supply shop and playing war games, except then I daydream about our heated arguments since neither one of us wants to play Tom Hanks.
The other night I was half asleep and having the same old fantasy about when Lev is older and we both wear matching jump suits and sweatbands around our hair and pretend to be hosts of an awesome local cable television access program where we discuss lesser known hair bands of the 80s.
A clashing din awoke me from my reverie. It wasn’t Lev crying or pooping noisily (though he was also doing that). I was awakened by the sound of Michelle next to me. I could hear the sound of her daydream leaking out of her head.
In Michelle’s fantasy, she and Lev are doing a choreographed jazz dance routine in matching mauve leg warmers to the soundtrack from “Flashdance,” and both of them are mouthing the words, “what a feeling,” as they twirl around in an old abandoned factory, which happens to have a ballet floor installed in it.
Michelle has another daydream where she and Lev are sitting side by side in a much nicer apartment and both have matching laptops on which they are pinning cute artisanal recipes on their Pinterest page. At one point, he turns to her with a knowing and says, “Oh you.”
Lev also has a fantasy. Just one: that he is one of those dispensers at the frozen yogurt store.
Only in this store, there’s only one flavor.
and now, a word from lev
Hi. It’s me, Lev.
Yes, I know how to type.
It’s time I set the record straight. First of all, the two big people have gone crazy lately and begun trying to force me to adhere to some insane sleep schedule they read about in a book.
Not the fat one with whiskers, and boobies that don’t work. He didn’t bother to read any of the parenting guides.
The one with the milk. She thinks just because she’s got the good stuff on tap that I’ll roll over and do whatever she wants, but she’s got another thing coming. For starters, I don’t know how to roll over. Anyway, a few weeks ago, sometime after my 8 week birthday—for which I got nothing by the way—they started trying to make me go to sleep by putting me in a dark room by myself at 7PM every night. At first, I let them think their little gambit was working, and I waited until the big ones laid down and thought they were going to get some sleep. Then, whammo! I screamed as loud as I could for an hour. When they finally looked good and bleary-eyed, I let them lay down for a minute. And when I say a minute, I’m kidding. It was 59 seconds.
The next night, I did a little dance I like to call the “torture them until they go insane tango.” Here’s how it works: I make various grunting and shrieking sounds on and off. Every time they get out of bed to check on me, I stop making noise and pretend to be dead. Then as soon as they lay down and I hear them breathe deeply, I make noise again. Repeat for about 6 hours.
The third night, I just screamed nonstop regardless of what they did, and for good measure, I shat in my pants and peed in their faces.
This morning, they seemed on the verge of giving up on their stupid sleep schedule. Both of them looked like their eyeballs were hanging out of their heads on springs. I knew victory was within reach.
But then, as the fat hairy one was eating his disgusting breakfast—something not even served from a boobie but eaten cold from a bowl—I glanced over his shoulder at the newspaper he was reading. It was an article about how parents in other cultures around the world raise their offspring. The following sentences caught my eye:
“Children in Fiji are not allowed to address adults, or even make eye contact with them. In Gapun, an isolated village in Papua New Guinea, children are encouraged to hit dogs and chickens, and to raise knives at siblings. At 8 or 9 years old, boys among the Touareg, a nomadic people in North Africa, get a baby camel to care for.”
Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my siblings flashing switchblades at me and I certainly don’t want a frickin’ baby camel to deal with. A little later in the article there was something about how children in developing nations are often expected to work and do something called “chores.”
Barbaric, I know.
But it occurred to me, if I keep pushing the fatty and the milk lady to the breaking point, they might start to get ideas from this garbage in the New York Times.
So when they looked away, I pooped on the newspaper—you’re welcome Arthur Sulzberger—and pretended, for a moment, to drift off into peaceful sleep.
And then, out of the corner of my eyes, I saw those poor saggy-eyed bastards smiling with pride, thinking, for a moment, their schedule was working.
three keys to raising a happy, healthy baby
There’s a lot of advice out there about how to raise a baby. There’s so much information, much of it contradictory, that it can be overwhelming for new parents to wade through the ocean of books, websites, and well-meaning friends and relatives, all of whom are certain their way is the correct way.
While experts disagree whether 8 weeks old is too young for a boy to use a chainsaw, we felt it was time the boy learned the art of lumber-jacking. (This also meant allowing him to drive a snowmobile, but once you start chainsawing, the other safety concerns melt away faster than the polar ice caps in Dick Cheney’s dreams/reality.) Sure, “Big Helmet” wants you to make sure your kid is strapped into all kinds of safety gear, but we believe in the old motto “old enough to pee, old enough to cut down a tree.” And so at 56 days old, when the first heavy snowfall of his life occurred, we took Lev out to Central Park to wield a Husqvarna 440 18 inch chainsaw, and cut down one of the park’s mighty oaks.
Let me backup. Before Lev was born, we had read all the “how to” books: The Happiest Baby on the Block. The Baby Whisperer. Bringing Up Bebe—(about how the French raise superior babies). The Brazilian Way of Raising Babies. The Russian Way of Raising Babies (spoiler alert—it’s mainly ice and borscht.) What to Expect When You’re Expecting. The Contented Little Baby Book. Baby and Child. The Baby Sleep Solution. Your Baby Sucks and You’re Doing It All Wrong.*
(*Not yet in print, but I’m working on it.)
When I say “we” had read all these books, to be clear about that pronoun, Michelle had read them all, with a pencil and a highlighter, taking notes and memorizing large swaths of the text and graphics. I had slept with one of the books under my pillow, either because I was hoping the information would soak upward into my brain, or I just wanted my pillow to be higher.
The point is, there’s a huge amount of wildly opposing viewpoints out there about what to do with your innocent little poopie machine. If you Google baby sleep training, you will see books that promise to teach your baby to sleep in 7 days and others that explain why you should never sleep train your baby.
Some authors advise routines that control your infant’s life down to the minute, others suggest you let the baby eat and sleep whenever he wants to. Some say you should begin to sleep train at 8 weeks, 3 months, 6 months, a year, not until your baby weighs a certain amount or starts growing a beard. Some say never let an infant be awake for more than two hours. Others say they should sleep 16 hours a day.
Some say you should bond with them but don’t let them get too spoiled. Some say it’s technically impossible to spoil a newborn. Others say you should spoil them for up to 3 months, and then after that you should suddenly give them a cold shoulder, and leave them alone in their room for long periods of time with no explanation to toughen them up (that’s from the Russian book). Some say adhere to a strict schedule and no matter how much they scream and cry, pay it no mind, buy some good headphones and go about your day.
Some say newborns cry because they are over-stimulated, some say it’s because they are bored. Some say to wear your baby on a little baby carrier to bond with them, but others say don’t do that, because they will become overly attached little momma’s boys, but if you do wear them on a baby carrier, you need to make sure it’s an organic one made by milk-faced virgins in the mountains of Peru from the wool of sheep who are also virgins. Whore sheep will ruin your baby.
Some say you should hesitate a few minutes before soothing them when they cry so they learn to self soothe and don’t think they rule the roost, otherwise you will have a mean, bossy baby to deal with. Others say if you don’t come running the instant they cry, they will end up robbing 7-11s by the time they are fifteen.
Some say make sure they sleep on their back, other’s say it will make their heads end up shaped like a rotting melon. Others say you should let them sleep with you so they can feel your heartbeat. Others say that will kill your baby.
Some say you must breast feed or they will end up attending a two-year beachfront community college and drinking wine from a box. Others say you have to introduce a bottle because they need to be adaptable enough to switch back and forth or they will develop bulimia and turrets. The French feed them chocolate and red wine from the age of 2 weeks old and their babies turn out fine. Other than the being French part.
But pretty much everyone agrees on one thing: never wake a sleeping baby. So that’s what we did today.
It was 7am and neither of us wanted to wake up, but due to a slight miscommunication, and our confusion from half-following the advice of several different books, we woke up a perfectly sleeping little angel and turned him into Linda Blair in the Exorcist, his head spinning around while projectile spewing.
To be fair, while this was a terrible decision, it was amusing. For once, after he had woken us up so many times, we turned the tables on the little bastard and he looked genuinely confused. He was staring at us with such a mixture of fear, disbelief and shock, that we all laughed about it for a few minutes—well, he actually didn’t laugh that much, he started cursing at us in a language that hasn’t been spoken for a thousand years and staring at us with goat eyes.
We tried bouncing him on the yoga ball, singing to him, purring like cats, turning on a white noise machine, and chanting in Sanskrit. Finally I started a chainsaw, which instantly made him go quiet. He looked at me like, Who is this crazy idiot?
Now to be fair, Michelle did not agree that we should let the baby sleep with or operate a chainsaw. But given the breadth and chaos of opposing views in our library of how to raise a baby lit, I decided it was time to at least add one more method to the maelstrom of opinions. The chainsaw method. It works every time.
It’s almost 8AM. Good night.
PS As promised, here are three ways to do everything right when it comes to raising a child:
1. Buy all the books you can find on this topic. Go to Amazon.com, or in the event bookstores still exist by the time you read this, go to a bookstore with a wheelbarrow and purchase every single text on the subject. Then build a large bonfire. Make sure your baby isn’t too close to the flames.
2. Solicit parenting advice from all your friends, relatives and even strangers, regardless of whether they have ever had a baby. Then insert Bose QuietComfort Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphone ear buds. Smile and think to yourself, That was the best $299 I ever spent.
3. Trust your instincts. It’s really not that complicated. Obey these two simple rules: If it stinks, change it. If it’s hungry, feed it. Sit back and pretend male pattern baldness is sexy. Congrats, Dad. You’re doing OK.
10 ways to lose the dad bod
Let’s cut the crap. Before Captain poopy-pants arrived, I used to work out three times a day. Now, I struggle to find time to floss. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t resent my beautiful son. I appreciate every moment I get to spend nurturing his gorgeous, tender soul. And I don’t shake my fist in the air at him silently just because he turned me into something that looks like a clay sculpture of Mark Wahlberg that was dropped off a ledge and then went bald and got big rings under its eyes.
But let’s just say since Baron von Burpenstein showed up, it’s been hard to sleep. And hence hard to find time to exercise, or brush my teeth.
I used to take pride in my appearance, but I am so overjoyed at the pleasures of fatherhood I hardly even spend all day in front of the bathroom mirror weeping.
OK, so enough about who gained weight and is now embarrassed to be naked even by himself. Bottom line: I look like a piece of melted gouda cheese with two raisins stuck in it.
I bought a bathroom scale, but I was like, “How can this possibly be the number this scale is saying? It must be broken.” So I threw it out and bought a new one. The same thing happened. Odd. Doesn’t anyone make scales that work anymore? When I could no longer afford to buy more scales, I finally had to face the truth. The scales weren’t broken. The problem was me. I was having visual hallucinations.
So I went to see an eye doctor, who confirmed my suspicions. I have become so overweight it is making me go blind. It’s called morbid cornea obesity, and apparently it can be brought on by innocent everyday activities such as having a baby, or eating 997 individually wrapped Kraft cheese singles, which they don’t warn you about on the package. And really once you eat the first few, what’s the point in putting a half empty case of cheese back in the fridge, especially at 2AM?
Anyway, I realized something had to change when none of my clothes fit me. And so I began making mu-mu’s out of the bed sheets.
When none of the bed sheets fit me anymore, I decided it was finally time to stop making excuses, and do something about it.
And so I devised a few easy ways to sneak fitness routines into the day while tending to junior. I really feel like a new man now, and the best part is, you can do all of these exercises while parenting your child.
1. Carry the baby around the house on a cinderblock for an hour each morning. Good for the glutes. Note: a cinderblock can be rough on a newborn’s skin, so fold two paper towels on top of the cement as padding.
2. Lay awake at night all night worried your baby will stop breathing. Repeat in sets of one, nightly, until you can’t feel your arms anymore.
3. Put a 20-pound dumbbell inside the baby’s diapers. Carefully cradle the baby/dumbell under your arm, being sure to support his neck. Do 10 sets of 15 reps with each arm. Don’t forget to rinse off the weights when you change the diaper.
4. Get up to pee in the middle of the night, delirious with new father fatigue and stub your toe on the side of the bed so hard that you first see red, then black, then white, then some of the early abstract color fields of Barnett Newman. Declare, “It’s broken for sure” to no one in particular in between cursing like an Albanian sailor who just lost his sister and three toes in a ponzi scheme. Go to the baby and say in a whimper, “Daddy broke his toe.” Rest at least 10 minutes before next set.
5. Tuck the baby carefully inside the front of your sweatpants. Jump rope.
6. Fall asleep in the act of eating. Catch yourself as your skeletal muscles relax and your neck drops and jerks you back awake. 8 sets of eight. This is a killer neck work out. Also fall off a stool. In between each round, actively lose some hair.
7. Lay face down on the floor and have your training partner put your baby in a position so that the child’s legs are straddling your neck, as if he was riding a horse. Use duct tape to secure your infants’ ankles together in front of your throat. Do clapping push-ups.
8. Lock yourself out of your home. This works best if you have a door that locks by itself and you are wearing only that pair of underwear you cannot explain still owning. For the first rep, take out a bag of dirty diapers and drop them down the trash chute or put them in a garbage can. Make sure the door locks behind you and you have no key and are in your underwear and that no one but the baby is home so you are unable to get back inside and are in a panic that the baby stopped breathing as soon as the door latches.
9. If you live in an apartment, each time you enter the building, put the baby in the elevator, press your floor number and then run up the stairs as fast as you can. See if you can arrive before the elevator does or someone steals your baby.
10. Mention one more fucking time to your wife, who has just had a baby, that you feel fat.
Prepare to run. Fast.
The love guru
OK fellas, let’s be honest. Before you had a kid, when you first noticed an attractive woman, you probably weren’t thinking, “Would she make a good mom?” That question might have arisen somewhere in the back of your medulla oblongata, but it wasn’t in the top 500 things you would think about when you first felt intoxicated by her scent.
But when you become a father, if you really fall head over heels with the baby, you begin to appreciate the woman with whom you share the awesome responsibility of parenting in an entirely new light.
I watch through bleary eyes as Michelle wakes up at 90-minute intervals night after night. How rather than drag her body like a burlap sack full of marbles the way I do, she springs from the bed at Lev’s slightest whimper. She holds him for hours, smiling and laughing, caressing him, with a love that is overflowing and endlessly energizes her. Yes, she gets tired, but she places Lev’s needs far above her own. She never complains or suggests we leave him on someone’s doorstep.
As I observe her selfless way of caring for him, I see that Lev has been teaching her what love means. I watch from the sidelines as my infant son blows Michelle’s heart and mind wide open, creating new horizons of sensitivity and patience. It’s like one of those dreams where suddenly the house you live in has a new room and you wander through it, exploring it with a sense of ether and amazement. He has set us both off on that dreamlike expansion of the arteries and aeries that surround the human heart.
Michelle excels as a student of love. I know she is going to get an A+ at the end of the semester, except the semester never ends. It’s actually one long final exam, but that’s not the point.
At least we have the same professor. He is a ruthless little pedant with unusual teaching methods. He literally shits all over us, pees in our faces, and abuses us throughout the night with mysterious shouts and grunts. He regularly farts loudly in the middle of class. The homework is relentless, and he never lets us out for recess. However, neither Michelle nor I has ever encountered a teacher as powerful as this little 8-pound bundle of wisdom and poo. It may be 4 am, but I stare at him, tiny guru, fire-starter, gnomic wizard, and I bow. I would bring him an apple but he has no teeth.
Still, with that gummy little grin he has taught us both what love really means: to give everything of oneself happily, to forgo sleep, food and showers without question or hesitation, simply and utterly because you are so magnetically drawn to protect and nurture another human being.
It’s a lesson we’re never done learning.
Speaking of lessons, here are five simple ways to show your partner you appreciate her in her new role as a mom:
1. Tell her you love her at least once every day. Especially now, in the weeks and months after a baby is born, women are going through some major hormonal changes. Be patient. Allow her to be upset even if you can’t understand why. Just be her rock. She may not say it now, but she will thank you in a few years. By then you will be bald. But it’s better to be bald and thanked than bald and hated.
2. When you cuddle with your baby, don’t forget to give wifey a kiss. No matter how exhausted, she will appreciate it. It’s easy to get caught up in staring at the newborn; stare at your lady, too. She needs attention just as much as the baby does. And possibly some A&D ointment.
3. I know you haven’t slept for a few weeks, but once in a while take a shower and shave. It’s a wordless way to show her you still care, even though you feel like a cigar just exploded in your face.
4. Because she just had your baby, her body has obviously gone through some serious changes. Tell her she is beautiful as often and sincerely as possible. Even the most confident woman needs to hear that a lot, especially post pregnancy. Also a tender kiss would be nice, even though she will perhaps stop you at that. For a few weeks, you can once again pretend to be a teenager who is prevented from getting to second base.
5. Do the freaking dishes once in a while, you barbarian. Take care of the laundry. Clean up around the house. She might not even notice, but on some level, she will. Anyway, it’s your mess, too. And your tidy whiteys don’t look all that tidy.
how boxing prepares you for fatherhood
There are a few moments in life when our mettle as men is tested. Getting into a fist fight is one. Having a baby is another. You can prepare for either of these, but until you go through it, you never really know how you will respond. I began learning martial arts 32 years ago, in 1983, and since then I’ve perhaps had a few more than my share of those mettle-testing moments, mainly inside boxing rings.
As a person who makes a living with my brain, getting punched in the head is not a good policy, and as a new father, I feel an added responsibility to protect my son—as well as a common sense need to protect my health. According to a recent story in the New York Times, cadets at West Point are required to learn to box, because officials believe there is “no better way to teach the grit needed for combat, and to expose them to fear and stress and teach them a confidence to respond.” But boxing accounts for nearly one out of every five concussions at West Point—more than twice as many as football. Is the risk of brain damage worth a boost in confidence?
Of course, there are many metaphorical similarities between raising a baby and combat—but those are metaphors. When you have a newborn, nobody is actually hitting you in the face (not very hard, anyway). The stress is real but other than sleep deprivation, it’s mental not physical. The conditioning required of boxers is certainly a great way to prepare for the arrival of an infant, and I did a lot of that during the month’s of Michelle’s pregnancy: jumping rope, hitting the bag, and running. But sparring is another story.
When I was in high school, a Korean boxer named Duk-Koo Kim died after a world championship match against Ray Mancini and that manslaughter turned me against boxing. Who could cheer for a sport in which men were sometimes beaten to death?
But a few years later, in 1990, when I had already earned my first belt as an instructor in aikido, I was working at Andy Warhol’s Interview magazine when I wrote a profile of a man named Bob Ciocher (pronounced “chocker”). Ciocher was a tough man in his late 70s, who had been a boxing coach to the U.S. military in WW2. Through meeting him I began boxing at the YMCA on 63rd street.
I bought gloves, a mouth piece and head gear, but we didn’t really “learn” to box. We just sparred with whoever showed up, and often it was more like a fight to the death than a sparring match. Just a bunch of New Yorkers with issues punching each other in the head. I would leave with my face all red and I don’t think I learned much except maybe, through youthful bravado, how not to be afraid. From fighting all kinds of people—white, black, Asian and Hispanic, men of all sizes (mostly bigger than me) I also learned a kind of anti racism: we are all equal in that we don’t like pain. We all react to getting hit hard. It was a great social equalizer and also a real way to build confidence.
In the 25 years since I started boxing at the YMCA, I earned a second black belt in a different martial art, and in the intervening decades, sparred with a lot of other guys, including a trip across Thailand that culminated in a ring with a guy who had 250 professional fights including 50 undefeated boxing matches as a pro. My face was bloody and my youthful confidence equally bruised.
I am not a great fighter by any means. I am five foot five and 150 pounds and I will turn 50 in a few months, so I have no business in a boxing ring. But a few months ago I began training with a Korean boxing champion named Tom Kim. He was a national champion in South Korea and then won a gold medal at the Asian games, before turning pro for a decade. This weekend he asked me to take part in a boxing exhibition and when I showed up he asked me, in broken English, if I had head gear and a mouth piece.
I do, but I haven’t used them in a while. As a new dad, I have not had much time or energy for fighting in the ring or out of it. But soon I found myself facing a former pro. We were just sparring, but in boxing the smallest difference in skill can mean a lot. A centimeter can be the difference between a broken nose and a harmless tap. Milliseconds matter.
This might be why it’s so pleasurable to spar. You have never been so hyper aware before. It’s almost like time stops. Your mind cannot wander for a second or you get punished immediately. It’s a great freedom from the past and the future. Physically it requires a lot of conditioning, but even more crucial is the mental aspect. You have to relax under fire. You can’t quit when it hurts. You can’t allow fear to control you.
As a man, these are all valuable lessons. As a father, they take on a whole new level of meaning. It’s not that I want to set a violent example for my son. But what kind of role model do I want to be when it comes to being a man? We are living in an age when—rightly so—women are increasingly being empowered, and the relationship between the genders is changing. Men today are reassessing what masculinity means. We no longer hold the door for a woman for fear of being old-fashioned. We don’t wear a suit or know how to tie a Windsor knot or carry handkerchiefs or know how to change a tire or make a martini because all of those skills seem to belong to a Neanderthal age and now we live in Brooklyn and wear a pork pie hat and eat artisanal cheese. We don’t know how to chop wood or throw a left hook.
Maybe I’m old fashioned. I’m not saying it’s a good thing, but I do know how to throw a left hook. And that’s not that hard part of fighting. The hard part is facing a man you don’t know and dealing with his punches. Dealing with aggression. Dealing with the unknown. That’s something I do want my son to know how to do: deal with fear.
When you spar in front of a thousand people, as I did yesterday, that introduces a whole new level of adrenalin. I woke up today and my skull was bruised and my lip was busted but something inside me was stronger.
I am not in favor of violence or brute force by any means. And repeated head trauma is definitely not good. But facing one’s deepest most primal fear, squaring off against a champion, has a value that’s hard to put a number on. Not because I think I will need to protect or defend my son by force. I’m not even sure I would allow Lev to learn to box. But the ultimate battle is always against our own self doubt and fear. Yes, boxing takes skill and effort and that’s the easy part. That’s the part you can learn and practice.
But overcoming the sheer paralyzing terror after you’ve been hit hard, not quitting and coming back with whatever you have, remaining calm enough to observe what’s happening and doing your best until the bell rings, in that three minute eternity, lies a prize we lose at our own peril.
I don’t want to be a punch drunk old man. I don’t want the signs of brain damage I already see creeping in my boxing coach. But I do want to be the kind of father who has earned his fearlessness.
Three decades later, I’m still fighting for it.
He blinded me with science!
A new dad is lying on the couch, a place where he used to go to drink beer, cuddle with his queen bee, or relax and watch Netflix in his free time.
Ha. Free time. Now he only finds time to collapse on the couch as a last resort, allowing his infant son to sleep on his chest, so that his girlfriend can snatch a few hours of rest.
It has been a long day. The nanny couldn’t come, the dad woke up early, went food shopping, cooked breakfast, then worked all day, feeling guilty his queen was alone with the tot, who bashed himself in the face with a rattle and cried until he couldn’t breathe. In short, blah blah blah. White people problems. But still, a long day.
Despite this, the moment daddy lays on the couch with the boy, he feels a rush of peace and joy he hasn’t felt since the last time he fell in love. It is in fact, almost exactly the same euphoria, a sensation at once exciting and calm. It’s the tragically rare experience of being totally overjoyed to be exactly wherever you happen to be right now.
Question: Why, after a day of trudging to Trader Joe’s, working without rest, having no time to exercise or shower, is the daddy filled with such joy simply to have 8 pounds of warm baby-child snoozing on his chest?
It turns out there’s some science behind this elation. There are neurological reasons for the emotional changes a parent experiences. The joy may be a warm fuzzy feeling in your heart but it starts in the prefrontal cortex, midbrain, and parietal lobes. Scientists who map the brain can pinpoint increased activity in regions that control empathy. This may also explain why I obsessively check whether the baby is breathing a few hundred times an hour.
It turns out that the empathy-related regions of the brain are right next door to the obsessive-compulsive section. And as someone who spends several hours a day performing the exact same ritualistic martial arts movements and reciting the same Tibetan Buddhist prayers every 24 hours, it would seem to the casual observer that I am not only extremely obsessive-compulsive, but also a very good candidate for the loony bin.
I like to think I’m not nuts. But there is a nut-shaped set of neurons known as the amygdala, which is kind of like an almond in the back of your dome, a processing center for fear, anxiety, and aggression. And the amygdala actually gets bigger after a baby arrives in your home.
Just staring at your baby sets a whole cocktail of hormones and chemicals coursing through the amygdala. The more brain activity you experience in relation to being a parent, the better off you are as a dad. The physical activity in the brain is a sign that you are feeling something in your heart. It’s actually the people who don’t go nuts for their babies who are nuts.
And so it turns out that from a neurological perspective, becoming a parent is actually almost exactly the same as falling in love. You suddenly think someone else’s drool is cute. The dopamine networks in the brain make you think watching your baby is more important than watching Family Guy. It also makes your baby smell good to you (note: this part of my brain isn’t working that well lately. See chapter 13.)
Whereas women have all this stuff hardwired into their brains long before they have a baby, in men the brain voodoo hits us from behind without warning, like a wrecking ball. And so the act of loving your kid is not only emotional but physical: it literally rewires new neural pathways in your brain. When we say having a baby changes everything, it’s not just that we don’t go out clubbing anymore. It’s doesn’t just leave your social life in tatters. It actually changes your grey matter.
That’s something that matters.
How to get along better with your wife after the birth of a child
This one is strictly for the fellas: Before you have a baby, it’s just you and your girl. Life is about love and love is about the thread tenuously strung between Venus and Mars. And perhaps never the two shall meet, but still, driven by hope, hormones and lust, you have somehow built a perilous rope bridge between the male and female planets. Because you’re a dude and it smells better over there in lady land. Because love is a mountain and it’s there. Because you may wear the pants, but hers fit a lot better.
And so love blooms with a twinkle in your peepers and the flutter of a butterfly somewhere in your solar plexus region. Love comes in at the eye: in the beginning, for most men, it’s about the physical attraction. Pheromones and feral moans. Before long there’s that first kiss, one thing leads to another and you’re in the hospital holding a shrieking little baby.
Now the leisurely things you used to think about when you were dating—what restaurant should we go to for dinner tonight?—are replaced with a more urgent kind of camaraderie. It’s like you are a pair of EMT medics on a nonstop triage, running from being wrist-deep in poopy diapers to walking in circles at 4am wondering why this sweet bundle of love is crying hysterically and what happened to your hair.
What does this do to your relationship? Where do love and sex and romance go now that you are both fawning over the new boss in diapers?
What began as a duo has become a trio. A tripod is usually a fairly stable structure. But a threesome isn’t. Consider Peter, Paul and Mary. Or the Father, Son and The Holy Ghost. Or Three’s Company. When there is a trio of personalities, there are constantly shifting alliances. Your romantic duo has become a pair of partners who spend all their time wrangling a tiny tyrant. And this newcomer is mighty cuter than either of you saggy-eyed bastards.
So there’s a built-in tension: you or your main squeeze is suddenly in danger of being squeezed out by a new love. The baby carries your DNA and is radiant. Your beloved is suddenly a stranger who yells at you for wanting to take a shower. How did this switcheroo happen, and what can be done to make romantic love coexist with parental love?
First piece of advice applies not only to new dads but to all men who seek to get along with women: take the idea of being right, set it on fire, shoot a bunch of holes in it and flush it down the toilet. Once you realize that it’s more important to get along than it is to be tethered to the weight of facts, life takes on a new lightness and love becomes a whole lot easier.
According to Buddha, patience doesn’t mean being a doormat. It’s a highly intelligent form of self-protection. It’s armor that cannot be penetrated by the self-inflicted wound of anger.
Let’s say your beautiful consort turns around one day and without warning, her gorgeous smile has been temporarily replaced with a flame-thrower because you didn’t fold your socks. Rather than engage the part of your brain that might respond with some logical argument about how, first of all those aren’t your socks, take a breath and hug the source of incoming fire. Tell her you love her. And realize that if you want a happy home, the importance of being right has to go the way of casually choosing which restaurant to head to for dinner.
Like male nipples, being right becomes vestigial. The impulse is still there, but it grows dimmer. Until one day it’s just a vague memory of something you can happily do without. (Also never forget the asymmetry in your arsenal of weapons: she has the silent treatment and withholding sex, neither of which you are much good at.)
Bottom line: being wrong and happy beats being right and sleeping on the couch every time.
A Mighty Wind
OK. It’s time to get honest up in this piece. Can we get real for a minute?
You know how everybody waxes rhapsodic about how good a newborn baby smells?
Brutal newsflash: that was true when the boy was a few days old. Yes, he briefly smelled like a combination of brown sugar and the sound of Gloria Estefan, if her golden late 80s voice was made into a scent.
That was then. Now he smells like chicken noodle soup that was left in a car on a hot day for four hours. As his dad, the blame should rest on me, except I bathe this little stinker every chance I get, and scrub him with Clorox and steel wool.
Also, I am not certain if his foul odors emanate from him being a dirty white boy in general, or if the source of the stank is a little bit more specific. His lower gate. I would blame Michelle, but she hasn’t done anything other than love the child with all her heart, and feast on garlic, raw onions, cabbage, baked beans, Bud Light Lime* and broccoli, which may explain Lev’s other interesting skill. He farts like a truck driver.
Some afternoons, while he is asleep, we sit around and stare in horror as he lets rip a ceaseless string of bass-heavy butt-cheek flapping tornados, accompanied by foul winds that make your eyes sting.
There’s a tremendous disconnect between his angelic, almost beatific appearance, and a smell that’s like having the grim reaper kneel on your chest and strangle you with the strength of the insane.
Despite her sleep deprivation, Michelle had a good idea. She set up a fan to blow the fart smells away from us while we sleep. (I had a good idea involving butt corks, which she would not allow me to enact.)
There’s an episode of the Simpsons in which Homer is judging the Springfield chili cook-off, and after tasting a bowl made with some fancy artisanal beans, says four disapproving words: “Less arty, more farty.” I tried dressing Lev in a floppy beret, hoping for the opposite. No avail.
The moral of the story is: our baby looks really good, and smells really bad. And you don’t want to live downwind of him.
*NOTE: Michelle doesn’t actually drink Bud Light Lime. But that is the favorite beer of General Stanley McChrystal, former supreme commander of US forces in Afghanistan, and myself, humble reporter and lover of fine beverages.
The boy eats every two hours. This is wonderful for his growth. He is getting so large he almost fell out of his swing, and now instead of picking him up we drag him around like a burlap sack full of bowling balls. The downside of his eating schedule is it makes your head explode to be woken up every two hours.
Last night Michelle and I were laying in bed around 4am listening to Lev, who had just eaten and or was just about to eat.
He was “going to the bathroom” by which I mean laying around making a sound like he was simultaneously strangling someone and being strangled.
Michelle and I like to listen to these ridiculous pooping noises and quietly laugh at our son, as this is our only remaining means of vengeance we can legally exercise as he slowly murders us both.
Suddenly, he yelled “mama!” This was not a mere auditory hallucination as was the case when he was a few days old and I thought he yelled “I’m Lev!” No. He clearly said “mama.”
Michelle, probably feeling bad for me that his first word wasn’t “papa,” suggested he said, “yeah man.” This was kind of her, but unrealistic. She then offered that maybe it was “Yemen,” which makes no sense at all since he hates to travel.
Finally I realized the obvious truth. He hadn’t said mama or yeah man or Yemen. He isn’t even six weeks old for God’s sake.
He had shouted “Ramen,” as in, “Here’s a menu suggestion: bring me some fucking noodles.”
A man can only take so much breast milk.
They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and love makes you blind, in which case, I need a pair of welding goggles and cataract surgery. Looking at my son is like taking ecstasy while wearing rose-colored glasses. Forget nostalgia — even now looks great. Suddenly, the impossible happens: these are the good old days.
With a face that’s as sweet as cotton candy dipped in artisanal honey, Lev is like a living Rorschach test. At five weeks old, he remains a blank canvas onto which we can project our own fantasies, delusions and emotions. His face is so pure, it’s never even felt a tear drop yet (at this age, when he cries, only tiny snowflakes shaped like angels come out of his tear ducts).
But who is this person who weighs less than a few Big Macs? Is it really possible that my own son is objectively the cutest baby who ever lived? I asked 100 strangers today, and it turns out that, yes, he actually is. Or else the world is full of kindly liars.
The boy’s face is mercurial. He shifts from a trembling lower lip to a smile that sets the cosmos on fire in a matter of seconds. I stare in amazement, with the feeling ancient humans must have felt when they first saw fire, or color television. It’s endlessly fascinating, and yet, the deeper meaning remains elusive. Who is this dangerously cute human being? What magical planet did he come from, where he could possibly look so good in velour trousers five sizes too large? His charms are diamond-like—myriad, multi-faceted, hard enough to cut glass.
But when I stare for hours into his face, watching his impossibly creamy skin shift like the surface of a mysterious ocean, can I have any sense of what is going on within his mind? He is only 36 days old, so when I see him suddenly gripped with anxiety and fear, is it because with his pure, unsullied wisdom, he senses our planet is hurtling around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour, while our solar system whirls around the center of our galaxy at 490,000 miles per hour, and the galaxies rush into a region of space 150 million light-years away, made of dark matter we cannot see? Or is it because he overheard NPR’s year-end pledge drive and can’t stand the guilt?
Hard to say. His face is like a small bowl of pudding. You want to look away but something also keeps drawing you back toward it. You must have one more taste. This is Lev, actually.
I often wonder what we’re really looking for when we gaze at our offspring. Sometimes, it feels like the baby’s face is a time machine, and we’re imagining ourselves at that young age, a screen onto which we project imagined memories we can’t really remember. Sometimes we feel a sense of wonder at how fast the newborn’s brain is growing and changing. Mostly, we think the newborn knows nothing. That we have to teach it to eat and talk and walk and use the potty. But in another equally true sense, the baby knows more than we do. He knows how to be in the moment. How to wear his clothes unselfconsciously. A baby farts like a tree swaying in the wind, with shameless, natural grandeur. When a baby wraps his hand around your finger, he has the strength that comes from having no hesitation. When he is hungry, by God, you will hear about it.
A baby doesn’t need to be taught these things. We do. A baby doesn’t need a tablet or a laptop; a cardboard box and his imagination are just as good as an Xbox. It isn’t stuff that matters. It’s putting matter under mind, where it belongs. The beauty of newborns is that they haven’t yet learned to over-think life, to turn heaven into hell by means of self-tormenting mental constructs.
We grown-ups live lives tethered to the soul-bruising illusion that external circumstances make us happy or sad, and we vastly underestimate the role our mental attitudes play. Having a baby is a potentially transformative life event of course, but whether it changes us and brings joy or we remain the same paper bag full of neurosis and self-pity, remains a question mark. Having a child can be as fun and easy or as fraught and insane as we want to make it. That’s not up to the baby, or karma or God. It’s up to us.
We think we are teaching our baby the ABC’s and how to tie shoelaces. But what we are really teaching the child—from day one—is how we handle stress. How we react to frustration. How to laugh and be easygoing or be self-obsessed and angry. Whatever we do, the baby absorbs. As parents, we now have a constant witness. Our infant is a true believer. Not in what we say, but what we do.
And that is an awesome responsibility: because from now on, a tiny sponge is watching our every move, soaking it all in. And if that doesn’t inspire you to be the best version of yourself, nothing will.
The Jew in The Lotus.
If I had a dollar for every time someone asked me how I could be both Buddhist and Jewish, I’d be an Episcopalian by now.
Background: I am fully, fluently, fervently Jewish — my grandfather was a rabbi, as was my great grandfather and great great grandfather before him, stretching back 13 generations to the Jewish ghettos of Vilnius in Poland, where they made their livings as esteemed wise men and/or, on bad years, horse thieves. I was raised in an observant 1970s hippie Jewish home. We lit the candles every Friday night, had two sets of dishes and silverware for meat and milk, but we also did yoga and learned to meditate together as a family when I was 7 years old.
As a kid, I always felt a strong connection to my Jewish identity: in first grade my best friend Alex and I created a comic book character called Dr. Rockenheimer, a nerdy but powerful rocket scientist whose catch phrase was “Jews are good news.” Personally, I don’t believe Jews are the chosen people but on the other hand, most of us didn’t choose to be Jews, either. With no tradition of proselytizing and very few conversions other than Sammy Davis Jr., if you are Jewish that means you probably are linked to the ancient Israelites and you carry genes that survived an almost unimaginable series of attempts at annihilation. So there’s a certain tribal pride you might feel, along with a strange impulse to dominate the media and banking industries. For many assimilated Jews I know, that’s about it.
But when you become a father you have to ask yourself not only “Am I a Jew?” but also “How do I want to raise my child?” I still fast on Yom Kippur, and since Lev was born, Michelle and I have begun lighting the candles on Friday nights, but I am Buddhist in a far more active way. Formally, one becomes a Buddhist by taking the bodhisattva vows, which I have done many times. The teachings of the Buddha impact my every day life — the way I wake up, how I eat, the way I fall asleep. Everything is part of the discipline of my commitment to the Buddhist path. For the last 30 years, I have spent at least an hour a day every day meditating on Buddhist teachings. I’ve attended more than 40 weeklong retreats — almost an entire year collectively.
Still, in my heart, there is no conflict between Buddhism and Judaism. Judaism is a culture and a religion. Buddhism, in my experience, is a scientific method for training the mind to be kind and peaceful and realistic. It is not inherently religious.
Buddhism is non theistic. In fact, not only does Buddhism reject blind faith in the concept of an absolute God, it rejects the idea that anything truly exists in an absolute way. According to Buddha, you, this blog, and the Huffington Post, lack even a shred of inherent existence. The word Buddha means awake. So despite the cultural trappings of a religion Buddhism is a method for waking up to reality. It’s the opposite of Ambien. And rather than being used as an excuse for Jihad, holy wars, and crusades, Buddhist meditation has been scientifically proven to be effective in creating health and happiness.
I don’t say any of this to criticize religion. But science has confirmed that humans have existed for 30 million years before the arrival of the bible and the Koran, so I prefer not to take the abrahamic fairytales too literally, otherwise my first question would be, Why didn’t God start giving a damn about humans until the last few moments of human history?
Of course, Judaism is more than just a religion. It’s a cultural identity and it still means a lot to me: I associate being Jewish with values of social justice, respect for learning, and profound familial warmth. Before Lev was born, I always felt strongly that it was important his mother be Jewish, since Judaism is matrilineal. However I didn’t ask Michelle to convert and so Lev isn’t Jewish.
But lately a strange thing has been happening. When Lev was still in the womb, I used to chant Buddhist mantras to him through Michelle’s belly. And when he was a newborn, I would soothe him to sleep with mantras. The word mantra means “mind protection” and the ones I use are Sanskrit syllables whose meaning generally relates to wisdom or compassion, two key principles of Buddhism. But recently, it seems like the only thing that soothes him at night is when I sing to him in Hebrew. And so often when he wakes up crying at some ungodly hour, I sing songs of praise to God, in an ancient tongue, with melodies remembered from Hebrew school, prayers I learned when I wasn’t much older than Lev is now. The melodies are haunting and sad and for whatever reason, he seems to respond to them. Maybe, like rye bread, you don’t have to be Jewish to like achingly sad Hebrew music.
But it’s made me think in a newish way about what being Jewish means to me. I reject blind faith and fundamentalism of all kinds. My grasp of Jewish theology is trifling. And yet. And yet.
The most important prayer in Judaism is the shema. Literally translated, it means “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” I sing it to Lev just about every night when he wakes up crying. It’s a prayer I used to sing to myself softly in bed every night before I fell asleep as a child. And now that I reflect on the meaning — the idea that God is one — I have begun to glimpse something new. Maybe the key idea of monotheism (that God is one) is the same as the Buddha’s teaching on non-duality (that ultimate reality transcends our petty sense of self and other).
About 15 years ago I organized a series of talks between a rabbi and my teacher, the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master Gelek Rinpoche, to discuss the similarities between Judaism and Buddhism. And there are some interesting areas of overlap (especially between the mystical Jewish traditions of Kabbalah and the esoteric path that I follow, vajrayana Buddhism). One question raised was, since Jews make up less than 1% of Americans, why is it that 30% of American Buddhists are Jewish? Clearly, there’s something in the Buddhist tradition that is specifically attractive to us Red Sea pedestrians. Maybe it’s that both Judaism and Buddhism combine a focus on compassion with penetrative analytical insight into the nature of reality. Rinpoche often says that Einstein’s Theory of Relativity is very close to the Buddha’s concept of emptiness.
Or maybe after millennia of wandering, the idea of sitting our tushies down on a cushion is irresistible.
Don’t Believe the Gripe.
As a first-time parent, there are many things to learn. For example, until a few weeks ago, I didn’t know what a bassinet was. I had heard the word before, I just thought it was some kind of woodwind instrument. No. It’s something the boy sleeps in. Tonight was his first night in the bassinet. He had some gripes about that.
Previously he had been sleeping in a little swing shaped like a letter C, so that his back was slouched and his head was elevated. I call it the scoliosis hammock. But seeing as he was almost five weeks old, we felt it was time he slept in something flat and something that rhymes with clarinet. And so the bassinet. He didn’t seem to agree. And so I learned another new term: gripe water.
I was dispatched to CVS to buy a small bottle of this 100 year-old remedy for gripeyness. It’s basically fennel and ginger in water, which you inject into the baby’s pie-hole by means of a small plastic syringe.
I am a skeptic about such remedies and figured it would only work if his main gripe was a lack of ginger and fennel. But I doubted it would get him to do the gripe thing. To be free from the gripes of wrath. In short, I didn’t have gripe expectations.
But we injected him with the solution and laid him down and he slept five hours, farting all the way like a little steam engine choo-choo train. On the downside, he probably contributed significantly to global warning with all the methane gas. On the upside, we all got to sleep until 5am.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m not griping. Just coming to terms bit by bit with what the fine print on this whole fatherhood contract really means. I think if most of us really knew what to expect when we were expecting we’d press eject. Becoming a good parent requires nothing less than adjusting your identity.
When we are young, we don’t have to worry about a thing. If we have caring parents with sufficient money to provide for us, we can depend on our home to be warm, our meals to be served. The only question we have to ask ourselves as small kids is, “Will this be fun?” If yes, we do it. If not, we throw a tantrum.
Once we leave home and get jobs, most of us cease to depend on our parents financially. We become independent. For the first time in our lives, if we want to wake up and smoke weed all day, or eat a gallon of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia for dinner, there’s nobody to stop us. We have to deal with the consequences, but it’s up to us. Still, we are only asking ourselves that same childish question: “Will this be fun—or worth the headache?”
When you have a baby, that completely changes. For the first time, you aren’t asking, “Will this be fun for me?” Instead, you are asking, “Will this be good for my baby?” You have gone from being dependent to being independent to having a dependent.
According to Buddha, the sense that we are independent is delusional. We are all interdependent. Everything and everyone depends on someone else. But this is largely theoretical until a sweet little baby is up to his knees in mustard-colored poo and he is depending on someone to do something about it.
That someone is you. You have become the guy that he depends on.
Question: Is life better when you depend on others, or when someone depends on you? That all depends.
Are we fundamentally infantile or nurturing? Do we get more pleasure from being pampered or from putting the Pampers on someone else’s tiny butt? Deep down we all still want to be mothered, and yet suddenly, as parents we are thrust into the position of being the ultimate protector: we are a combination bodyguard, singer of lullabies, solace and stuff provider, and full-time answerer of unanswerable questions.
And so we learn how it feels to be the person that someone else thinks understands how the world works. The source of calm reassurance and the precious illusion of safety in a terrifying unstable cosmos.
Until we end up wearing Depends, and then the whole cycle begins again.
The thing about a vacation with a baby is that it’s not like those vacations you had before, in Jamaica, Paris, the British Virgin islands, Rome and London, where you slept in, drank booze, and did what you wanted, when you wanted.
This is our first vacation with Lev. We are at my family’s place in Prince Edward Island. This is a piece of land that means a lot to me because I’ve been coming here for 40 years, every summer since I was a kid. My father bought the property a few years after the Cuban missile crisis when he and Alan Alda joined forces and decided to form a commune to get as far away from likely targets of a Soviet attack as possible. (This was long before M*A*S*H made Alan Alda famous—at the time he was just a struggling actor and happened to be our neighbor and a friend.) My father was dispatched to search for a suitable place to build a utopian new society that could withstand the impending nuclear holocaust. He left New Jersey and drove north, thinking maybe he would stop in New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine or Nova Scotia, but he kept driving, alone through the night.
What he found, in Prince Edward Island, was a large piece of waterfront property, which he bought for a pittance. The idea of the commune that would survive WW3 soon fell apart with various beatniks arguing about who would wash the dishes and how childcare duties would be divided, but on the upside, every summer since then, my family has spent July and August on this remote private slice of paradise which we have all to ourselves. It’s not only far away from the bustle of New York City, it’s like traveling back in time.
Bringing Lev to Prince Edward Island was laden with meaning for me: it was the place where I spent my childhood summers, and the property is scattered with markers and totems of my life’s milestones. Every father has some version of this experience—whether it’s playing a favorite Rolling Stones album or showing your kid a Marx Brothers movie—you just pray your child will love the stuff you loved as a kid. And fortunately, Lev went absolutely bonkers for Prince Edward Island: he ate wild blueberries we picked in the front yard, learned to crawl in the exact same spot where I learned to ride a bike, and when we dipped his tiny feet in the pristine waters of Saint Mary’s Bay, he squealed like it was the moment he’d been waiting for since his previous life.
We took the entire month of August off to spend on the island, and from the first day it was perfect: warm water, blue skies, and that air, tingling with the scent of bay leaves and pine and salt water. Of course, when you go on vacation you could bring your nanny along, but we didn’t. Mistake.
At this point, you are buried headfirst in the parenthood adventure and you’re doing fine. Except that when you can’t find your phone, it turns out you left it in the fridge. And you wake up in the shower fully dressed. Every night, Lev takes a huge chomp out of the sleep period and then wakes up at 6am like he just gulped ten cappuccinos and is ready to celebrate.
So you give in and call a sleep specialist. A baby whisperer. Someone who will help your baby learn to become what’s called an independent sleeper. There are many approaches. One is called the Ferber method. This is either named after a guy named Ferber or a combination of Gerber baby food and the F word. It involves barricading yourself in a room for a week while you listen to the person you love most cry hysterically all night, because you have broken a sacred bond and changed the rules of the game.
The rules used to be, the baby cries, you wake up and feed him. About a month ago, we changed that arrangement and stopped feeding Lev at night. He took that surprisingly well, because we replaced the heroin of breastfeeding with the methadone of hugging.
So now each time he cries during the night, all he needs is to be picked up, held for somewhere between a few minutes and a half hour, and he will happily fall back asleep. The problem with this arrangement is twofold: one, when the solution was breastfeeding, only Michelle had the good stuff, so I couldn’t be faulted for burying my head under the pillows. Now that he’s moved on to the soft drug of love and hugs, both parents are qualified dealers.
The other problem is that while it works for him, it makes a mockery of what morning used to be. Morning used to be the time when I woke up and felt like getting out of bed since I was done sleeping. Now it’s a time I feel like crawling into bed because I feel like someone has been beating me with a bat all night.
In any event, the Ferber method was ruled out after I suggested we let Lev cry it out and Michelle looked at me like Linda Blair in the exorcist, making it clear that I would be the one crying, not Lev.
And so today, like most days, at the first hint of sunrise, Lev clambered into our bed and onto my chest and wriggled for a while, using his legs to do a series of short violent squat thrusts, forcing himself upward towards my face, like a combination inchworm and tiny drunken Scotsman desperately attempting to head butt you in the face. Owing to his youth, the fontanel at the top of his skull is still soft, and I worried that as he rammed his head into my face he might get hurt in the brain. So I lifted my chin up and allowed him to ram the top of his head into my throat. The boy started adding a loud fart with each skull ram to the throat. Then he silently worked his little fist up near my face and stabbed his thumb down with leopard like speed, missing my eyeball by the width of a lentil.
I asked Michelle, who had been enjoying a nice long 45-second nap, if she felt like waking up and taking Lev somewhere far, far away. She’s a kind-hearted woman but shot me the exact same look a feral raccoon gives you when you come upon one ripping your garbage apart, ie., “Would you prefer to let me continue doing what I’m doing or have me rip your balls off with sharpened raccoon teeth?” I held the boy some more, wincing silently with each surging thud of his skull against my windpipe, and watched the light outside the window slowly turn from gun metal blue to the color of a yellow bruise.
Later, when I got up and looked in the mirror, instead of my face, I saw a large crenellated matzo ball with a few grey wires stuck tenuously to the top and sides where my hair used to be, bloodshot eyes mounted at uneven locations near the nose area.
We will need a vacation after this vacation, but hey-only 18 more years to go. And if nuclear war with Russia breaks out, at least we can get some sleep.
The top ten ways my son is like Jesus
It’s almost Labor Day. Technically, that means it’s still summer for a few more weeks, but sadly we’ve been getting bombarded with back-to-school shopping messages since July, and I’m noticing Christmas stores opening for business. Part of me wants to scream: "Stop stealing my last weeks of summer,” but instead, for Christmas, a few thoughts on the top 10 ways my son is similar to Jesus.
1. They both look terrific in a shroud.
2. They are both completely honest.
3. Both have blue eyes, blonde hair, both kinda Jewish.
4. Both prefer sandals.
5. Both are best friends with whores. (We got him a stuffed animal of a whore.)
6. Neither speaks English or knows what the internet is.
7. Jesus was born through immaculate conception. Maybe not immaculate but Lev’s was also quite tidy.
8. Jesus turned water into wine. Lev turns water into whine. Especially bath time.
9. When either of them gets upset, they flip tables over.
10. Both have ass-kicking dads.
You may argue that all of the above points are infantile, and I agree. We are all infants. Most of us, as adults, have learned that if we stub our toe, we react differently than if our house burns down or someone shoots us in the kneecap. We modulate our weeping accordingly. The Happiest Baby on the Block author Harvey Karp points out that babies are like smoke alarms: they have no ability to modulate. Last night at 4 a.m., junior was up wailing like a 10-alarm house fire, and after trying everything to soothe him, ultimately, he calmed down by sucking on my thumb as I chanted some mantras directly into his skull, lips pressed softly against his soft fontanel as if my breath and being were pouring a bucket of peace directly into him.
I got back in bed and huddled my arm around Michelle. We were both frazzled. I doubt any couple has a newborn without feeling some stress on the relationship. I had the sudden realization that both she and I — and everyone else for that matter — are also like that crying baby: Outside we have learned to tone down the howling, but inside we want to be reassured that we are safe, that someone will let us suck on their thumb.
Even Dick Cheney feels this way. Okay, maybe not Dick Cheney — he just wants to set an oil field on fire and waterboard a bunny rabbit. But everybody else has a little tender spot inside where we remember (or remain) that terrified and vulnerable little person who woke up his parents at 4 a.m., screaming, hoping for a reassuring hug.
It would be nice if one hug fixed you for life, but no. We need constant reassurance, and that can get tiring when you are the hug-giver. A swimming pool full of patience comes in handy, but maybe more important is remembering that we ourselves also needed and still need the same kind of comfort we are giving.
Just because we’re not the one in diapers, or the frigid body sleeping on the street, or vividly aware of the fact that we’re dying as much as we’re living at this very moment, doesn’t mean we aren’t also in need a kiss on the forehead.
In dealing with each other, whether it’s a spouse or a shivering stranger, it’s good to remember this — on this day, just about a hundred days shy of Christmas, and every day.
A Meditation on Becoming a Daddy.
The Zen Buddhist ideal is to have a direct experience with reality at all times, unmediated by dualistic thinking. So for example, if you are taking a nice cold shower, you simply and directly experience the sensation of the water on your skin, rather than indulging in creating a conceptual barrier between yourself and the moment, with unnecessary thoughts like, “Why the fuck am I taking a cold shower in a monastery in Japan when I could be living with my parents in Westchester?”
Having a baby is a lot like that. It cuts through all our conceptual game-playing. In modern life, there’s so much addiction to unnecessary layers: our reality is virtual. Our conversations are meta. Art is gesture. Nothing is simply what it is.
But when you are up to your wrists in a messy diaper change, trying to wipe poo off the lad’s apricot when without warning he pees on you and himself, in a glorious arc that splashes into his own eyes, there is no discursive thought to escape into. Memo to Alannis Morrisette: It’s not ironic. There are no air quotes. You are simply there, drenched in someone else’s pee. This is true satori.
Today the truth of the dharma was announced by the sound of the baby squealing for food. Nothing extra. Nothing less. No 3-D motion graphics. No autotune. Just life itself unfolding with vivid precision.
And amid that patternless chaos, if you don’t think about it, perfection.
The other Zen aspect of getting to know your newborn is the wordlessness of the relationship. I mean, you talk, but it’s not really a two-way conversation so most of the time you just make nonsensical baby sounds.
For the first time in my life, I am learning to love someone I can’t seduce with words (unless you count that German exchange student in High School). It’s a strange truth that sometimes you can learn a lot from a teacher who cannot speak.
Normally, when we tell someone “I love you,” what we really mean is, “I want to control you.” Or something even more preposterous and delusional: “I love you as long as you remain the person I think you are.” Usually we really mean: “I love you as long as you love me back in a certain way, and make me feel good about myself.” Or “I’d like to see what you look like naked.”
So it’s basically a business transaction. If you do this, then I’ll do that. If not, see you later.
In contrast, the ideal of pure love means simply wishing another person to be happy—no strings attached. But in our minds, there is always some mix of the self-inflicted wound of attachment, that sticky, grasping mind.
With the birth of a child, something else happens. Of course, there is still a lot of attachment. But you don’t really expect much back from a newborn (unless you are insane). True, it can still be an ego trip, since the child is your creation and you may feel a little Godlike since you have now created human life, and he is totally dependent on you.
But in another way, he is also a total stranger who shits in his pants and cries a lot.
And yet, regardless of your role in coming up with this little creature, you don’t feel much like an all-powerful being. No, you feel more like a helpless and overwhelmed mess of human flesh tenuously stuck to a skeleton, a fragile arrangement that might otherwise fall to pieces, were you not suffused with the extraordinary energy of boundless affection.
This is how the baby teaches you what love really means. For the first time in life, you aren’t asking for the other person to give anything back. Just being whoever this strange, sweet-smelling little bundle is, just laying there sprawled across your chest, is way more than enough. And should he inadvertently put his warm little hand on your collar bone, as if he was hugging you, you can barely help yourself from crying with joy.
Every morning, when I see Lev for the first time, I fall in love again, a little deeper. My heart cracks open, gently, quickly, again. It’s like skydiving. The momentum of love just keeps increasing.
Some couples become jealous of the newborn baby, but Lev has brought Michelle and I closer to each other because he is teaching us both to love in a far more pure way than either of us had known before. We’re like two classmates studying and learning the most rewarding subject on earth from a tiny little professor in diapers. We study together. We compare notes. We stay up all night cramming for the test that never ends.
The curriculum is intense and most of the books are useless. We are learning to be empathic and intuitive and to speak the language of baby cries, to understand what “waaah!” means as opposed to “meep!“ and the various other shouts and squawks and grunts he makes, how to stop him from peeing while his diaper is being changed, and most importantly, how to love more deeply and patiently than Jesus on ecstasy. Both of our chests are being cracked open in slow motion. It’s dizzying and terrifying and awesomely delicious and a great experience to share with someone you trust.
In general, when I look into Lev’s eyes, either he is calm and stoned from breastfeeding, or wide-eyed and startled, his mouth wide open with an expression that says, “Why is nobody else here alarmed about this situation?” Either way, I can’t help but laugh. I just want him to know he is safe and loved, that I would move heaven and earth to make sure he is ok.
This continual, infinitely-increasing falling in love vertigo happens not only in the morning, but also when he wakes up from a nap, or I do. Or when I come home from running an errand. We may have been apart for less than an hour but all over again there’s that rush of slow-motion elation, the quiet sense of joy beyond expectation coursing through my being. It’s both calm and totally exciting.
Someone should have invented a drug that feels this good by now. We’d all be addicts.
The boy is lying on my chest as I type. His body about 19 inches long and wrapped in a white and yellow swaddling blanket. He is warmer than a fresh loaf of French peasant bread, and is noisily breathing and wriggling, slowly making his way up to my shoulder. I’m thinking about how I want to raise him in an atmosphere of warmth, love and respect, and how I want to make sure no one ever speaks a harsh word in our home.
I listen to him breathe. Suddenly, he shouts a phrase that sounds like, “I LOVE!”
After a startled pause, I ask, “Okay... You love... who?“
He refuses to elaborate. Later, when I tell Michelle what happened, she says I am being ridiculous if I think a child less than a month-old would ever shout the words, “I love.”
She points out that it’s far more likely he said, “I’m Lev.” That makes a lot more sense. It’s just that he shouted it so quickly that I misheard him. He’s a fast talker.
Other things I’ve noticed about the new arrival: while awake, he often does a nonstop movement that’s a cross between John Belushi’s imitation of Joe Cocker and Mick Jagger being taken aback by something.
He will stare for a long time towards one side of the room as though listening to a thief pick the lock outside the door.
Generally, he is as cool as a cucumber in Alaska but sometimes he will start to act a bit snarky. At those times I have an 8-step process. First I burp him. If he’s still upset, I change his diapers. If that doesn’t soothe him, I do the five S’s — swaddle, shush, side position, sway and let him suckle at my man teet. Finally, if he’s still upset, I make snide comments under my breath and flip him the bird when he isn’t looking. (To those who think it’s rude to make such gestures to a baby, I learned this from our cat, Mr. Whiskers, who used to flip me the middle finger every time I turned my back.)
In short, I’m a totally normal dad. I divide most of my time between sitting around the house trying not to go insane, and rocking back and forth in a fetal position in the bathtub, or hiding in the coat closet. Nothing gets to me.
But recently, Lev’s begun testing me. And he has a new weapon: irony. (I assume he gets that from his mother.)
Like a greased wild boar or an overly hot potato, a sardonic baby is hard to handle. For example, this morning as I was getting dressed he arched his eyebrow and shot me a look like, “Please tell me that’s not what you’re planning to wear.”
Then he snapped his fingers and did a little head circle movement. Also he was wearing a onesie I’d never seen before that said, “Idaho? No, you da ho.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love my son, and after three decades of meditation I like to think I’m a patient man. But I confess that I snapped. I whispered (very calmly) under my breath, “Yeah, well at least I don’t poop in my pants. And your onesie is ridiculous.”
Honestly, I said it so quietly I didn’t think he could hear. But I turned around and he glared at me with an expression that said, “No daddy. You’re ridiculous.”
It was like he branded his words on my heart with a hot iron. As Freud notes in his theory of the Oedipal complex, a boy will have the unconscious urge to murder his father. And in 30 years of martial arts training, while I have learned self-defense against knives, guns, and multiple opponents, unfortunately there is no defense against a sarcastic baby.
I’m sure every parent of a newborn has had this same experience so it’s almost pointless to say what happened next. But yes. We fell to the floor in a wrassling match, he got me in an arm bar, and started yelling, “Now who’s your daddy?” He was kneeling on my chest delivering a classic ground and pound beating, so I tapped out.
The moral of the story is, Words have power. And you can’t win a fight while holding a baby.
Beyond that, I learned a valuable lesson: sarcasm really is the ugly step-cousin of anger. And I’ve decided it has no place in our home. Although once in a while I will say, “Oh nice, Lev, I see you ‘decorated’ the inside of your diapers. Good work, Poocasso.” And then I’ll make air quotes with my fingers, and run for it.
In Which I Bathe My Very Filthy Infant Son for the First Time.
For some reason, long before Michelle was ever pregnant, I had a weird feeling I was really going to enjoy bathing my baby. But who wouldn’t enjoy bathing a baby? It’s basically like rinsing off a hamster, with less risk of getting bitten. Today for the first time, we slipped Lev into a bath. This was long overdue. He had lost that new baby smell after about a week, and frankly was starting to smell like a hobo.
Side note: I love baths myself, to a disturbing degree. I find something about immersing myself in warm water deeply primal, like a return to the womb. It’s not just a way to get clean, it slows my mind down, and becomes an atavistic ritual: I fill the tub with mint and lavender bubble bath, light a candle, put on some classical music and submerge my head under the water and stay under for a minute or so, during which time I connect with a long-lost memory of being an infant inside my mother’s womb.
So when it was time for Lev’s first bath, it was laden with the weight of expectation. Like a baptism or going to one of those car washes in the Dominican Republic that’s also a strip club—it was either going to be really fun/meaningful or something we would all never speak about again.
As we dipped Lev’s naked wriggling torso into the water, I felt like I should probably say some kind of Hebrew prayer but all that came out was a Tibetan Buddhist mantra. Lev began screaming as though someone was snipping his toes off with a wire cutter, despite the fact that he was being bathed in lukewarm water with organic soap by three pairs of hands (our nanny helped, since this was our first time and we didn’t want to mess things up with a slippery soap grip, and maybe squeeze him out of our wet palms like a watermelon seed, and send him shooting across the tiles).
After a few seconds of suds and rubs, he relaxed, and got his bath time groove on. Mainly he wept, as if parting with his primal baby dirt was a slightly sentimental affair.
The best part was towel time, which is when you lay around in a towel after a bath and eat mint chocolate chip cookies and talk about what TV shows you like. He also cried through a lot of towel time, but damn, he looked cute with his hair all wet and clean.
After he was dry, we laid him on the couch in the sun and rubbed shea butter on his buttocks with great vigor. (Michelle yelled at me for slapping his ass hollering, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ but I couldn’t help myself.) Lev was laying face down with his wrinkly-ass butt pointing south for maximum sun exposure.
True, he was still quibbling a little, but I knew deep down he liked the bath. He did instantly poop a little, which kind of ruins the whole point of taking a bath. But I figure it’s like when you join the Marines, and on your first night in the barracks, they beat you mercilessly after you fall asleep — a hazing gesture that says, “welcome to the team” and then everyone cuddles.
Maybe Marines don’t really do that. But the moral of the story is, I happen to be a black belt in bathing babies. I don’t want to take all the credit for this, but the lad has been sleeping like a donkey that was shot with a tranquilizer dart for the last few hours.
And he smells brand new again, like snow or a freshly baked cookie.
fIre in the hole
Confession: Before becoming a parent, I had never wiped someone else’s butt. Maybe I don’t go to the right bars. Anyway, it just hadn’t come up. But if it had, one might have expected a polite thank you. Perhaps an invite to dinner. Certainly not someone screaming in my ear like I was stabbing him. After all, I use a warm wipey.
We didn’t want to spoil the child, of course, but as first-time parents, we went overboard and purchased this machine (two of them, in fact) that pre-warms the butt wipes. Still, Lev’s reaction was not the attitude of gratitude you might hear from patrons leaving an upscale spa after a massage. “Oh thank you, it was wonderful, and here’s a tip for the nice man who wiped my bunghole.”
No. It was more like the reaction you’d expect from a Russian prison gang-leader after you snitched on him and spilled his borscht. In this case, Lev didn’t shank me, but that was only because he hasn’t figured out how to use his opposable thumb and index finger. But as I gently tried to clean his lower gate, the boy shouted with rage, shock and indignation, his primal howl an implicit promise of retribution at some future date.
It all starts nicely enough. You notice your infant is making that face, all reddish and crinkled, and making a low mooing sound. So you go to change the diaper. While it is anatomically impossible, he has pooped not only in the usual place but also somehow on his legs, ankles, up his back in a jagged smear to his neckline, as well as the back of his wrists and a dollop on each of his earlobes.
You are grabbing his ankles, swatting at his hands and using your teeth to open up a clean diaper, while pawing ineffectively at the butt-wipe machine with your foot, when suddenly you realize, you are not doing what’s called “a good job.” The situation has spun quickly and wildly out of control.
The baby is crying. You’re crying. There’s caramel pudding everywhere. If Michelle walks in now, you will have some explaining to do, but at this exact moment, there’s no time to rest. And so you go on, flailing wildly, like a man sinking in quicksand while trying to save a donkey having an epileptic seizure. Only it’s less graceful. And stinkier.
Michelle and I had been having a little chat the day before because there was a pillowcase I loved and didn’t want to throw out. I had owned this pillowcase for years and it had sentimental value, but somehow Lev’s mustard attack emerged from the neck-hole of his onesie and turned my beloved linen into a Jackson Pollock. Just like that, Michelle won the argument about the pillowcase — we threw it out.
We didn’t have the luxury of throwing out the bed, floor, ceiling, the walls, but let’s just say we probably should have just doused the apartment with gasoline and set it ablaze. In any event, my beloved pillowcase, soft tender, organic cotton I had rested my face on for years, was now Lev’s toilet paper.
But that’s the amazing thing about being a father. You don’t mind losing an argument or an heirloom. You may be up to your wrists in e coli, but you find yourself leaning in to his howling pie-hole, kissing that little button nose and laughing.
You may have tried drugs, alcohol, yoga, meditation or any combination of the above, but now for the first time, you are, for a moment, free of the terrible relentless weight of thinking only about yourself.
This is the oft-spoken of irony of parenthood. You have taken on a job with 24-hour workdays, no pay, no vacation, no rest and it requires you to handle someone else’s poo, and yet you are happier than you’ve ever been in your life.
A glimpse of liberation is right there in the palm of your hands. Screaming at you.
And you’re smiling uncontrollably.
Swaddle And Swagger
Mike Tyson once said that everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face. The same might be said of having a baby. You get home, put your newborn in his carefully decorated baby room, and then the doody hits the fan. Literally.
You are at a disadvantage since your rational thought processes have stopped working. Cortisol levels in your brain went through the roof the moment the baby was born, you are terrified, elated, exhausted, un-showered and weirdly proud. Since you can’t think straight, you turn to others for advice.
Prior to Lev’s arrival, Michelle had bought an entire library of baby advice books, including “The Happiest Baby on The Block” by Dr. Harvey Karp. We were too bleary-eyed to read, so we watched a short video online, in which the author explains how to soothe a baby with the five S’s, the first of which is to swaddle your baby super tightly.
What Dr. Karp does not tell you is that at five days-old your baby is a well-greased reincarnation of Harry Houdini and can get his arms free within three seconds, even when you double swaddle that little fucker with two blankets and wrap him so tightly you’re certain you’re crushing his ribs.
No. He is fine and he has escaped.
This may have something to do with the fact that the nerves in your fingers don’t work anymore after sleeping no more than 23 minutes in a row for the last few nights, or that your eyes now have an opaque gauze over them, making it difficult to swaddle your son, or brush your teeth. Also Dr. Karp doesn’t warn you that when you un-swaddle him, he will pee on you and also on his mother if she happens to be nearby, and also on That Very Expensive Couch (which never mind, you had been meaning to get steam cleaned anyway).
And then the boy glances at you with that one little half open eyeball and all is forgiven.
At 3:00 a.m., I give up on swaddling and take him to the expensive pee-stained couch. He is nestled around me like a warm croissant. Occasionally, he smiles in his sleep, which makes no sense, because what is he thinking that makes him smile? He doesn’t even know what smiling is. But he does it and it makes me grin uncontrollably and kindles me from inside like a shot of bourbon.
He makes little peeping noises and I feel the warmth of his head, his ears pressed against my chest. I reflect that he is listening to me breathe, too, and feeling my heartbeat, and intuitively he is learning to breathe from me, so I slow down and relax for him.
For a brief moment he opens his eyes and I see a glimpse of liberation in those grey blue diamonds shining effortlessly behind limpid lids. For the first time in my life, I understand what it means to love another more than oneself.
I may not be able to swaddle, but I discover another trick: neuro linguistic programming—the largely discredited 1970s-era pseudoscience of hucksters and car salesmen—works on my son. I don’t mean to brag but I just hypnotized Lev into thinking he is a burrito. He literally went from sobbing to laying there and pretending to be a bean burrito.
Silent. Delicious. Farty.
Sweet dreams, Lev. And welcome to Earth. We’re gonna be just fine.
The Arrival of a Stranger
About 11 hours ago, my son was born. His name is Lev.
Lev Sonam Ehrlich.
We had, of course, been warned that giving birth can be an ordeal, but Michelle was weirdly serene and the whole thing happened in a blur. The baby emerged after 30 minutes of pushing. He has a thick head of wavy golden hair. Lev means heart in Hebrew, and Sonam means merit or golden in Tibetan. So his name means golden heart or fearless merit.
When Michelle was pregnant, friends kept asking me how I felt about impending fatherhood. I always said the same thing: I feel like I’m sitting at the top of a roller coaster. I don’t exactly know what’s going to happen, but I know it will be a fast, scary, thrilling ride.
Even when you know a baby is going to be born, nothing can prepare you for the gut punch, the way you see stars, the rush of blood. The nurse handed my son to me, and tears popped out of my eyes, because this small, purplish-yellow little gerbil covered in goo was staring at me with a look in his eyes that said: “Don’t just stand there you idiot, do something.”
It was a moment of thunderous intimacy. I had never before been so needed by another human being. He wasn’t asking me to feed and protect him, I just understood that it was now my job, my calling, my pleasure. I was now completely responsible. My childhood and adolescence — which had already been extended several ridiculous decades too long — was over, and something new and uncharted was beginning.
It was like stepping into my father’s suit, and seeing how it fit and how it didn’t. Or getting behind the wheel of a car for the first time and wondering whether your feet will really reach the gas pedal, and then, in that instant your sneaker makes contact with the pedal, the question is gone: you are in motion, the world around you is a blur.
When it came to becoming a father, in my circle of friends I was the last man standing. At age 49, I feel ancient, far too old to be starting the journey of fatherhood. Why did I wait so long? A therapist, my mother, and several exes might say “fear of intimacy” and maybe there’s some truth to that, but several other factors are at play.
For one thing, throughout my 20s, 30s and 40s, when pretty much all of my friends got married and had kids, I was busy doing something else, which you could call running away from adult responsibilities, but I like to call “having fun.” Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between. Maybe my manic flitting around the world and intense fixation on mastering martial arts, the extreme adventures and extreme workouts, were a search for meaning, or an attempt to fill a void.
A partial list of things I did instead of changing diapers and raising a child during the three decades of my extended adolescence: I jammed with Prince and The Beastie Boys; got drunk with Keith Richards; became a VJ for MTV; took long trips to Tibet, India, China, Nepal, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Cuba; Thai boxed my way across Thailand; got caught up in riots in Ecuador and fled into the Amazon rainforest; a magazine actually paid me to go to Jamaica, combat glaucoma and write about Jamaican go-go dancers; my music publisher sent me on songwriting trips to Nashville, London, Berlin, Stockholm and Sydney; I attended 34 Buddhist meditation retreats.
When I wasn’t traveling (and often when I was) I was spending two to three hours a day practicing martial arts. And then there was my romantic life. To summarize: there’s a book called The Tyranny of Choice. And while I am a short, chubby nerd with no redeeming qualities, for some reason I managed to get lucky when I was 11 years old when Deirdre Williams kissed me on the cheek. And then even more inexplicably, my luck with the ladies kept going for four decades, an unlikely run culminating with Michelle, who is a woman of stunning brilliance and crushing beauty, and apparently also someone with poor eyesight and no sense of smell.
Anyway, nothing about this lifestyle as a globetrotting songwriter and kung-fu obsessed idiot is impossible once you have a baby. But as anyone who has a kid knows, the life I was living becomes more tricky once there’s a newborn in the picture.
Within a few seconds of being born, Lev awoke me from this life-flashing-before-my-eyes reverie when he yelled a clearly articulated and deliberate affirmation that he was psyched to be alive. He looked at me and shouted, “YEAH!” and I had my first thought as a parent: this goniff just said his first word and he isn’t even a minute old. We have a word in Yiddish that describes the particular pride a parent feels when your child achieves something — nachas. I was only forty-five seconds into parenthood, and already I felt like bragging because my boy learned to speak at age zero.
A few other things I noticed about this newly arrived stranger:
He has stunning blue eyes like Steve McQueen.
He smells like a croissant and sunlight.
And he has a giant set of balls.
Michelle and I took Lev home from the hospital and showed him around the apartment; I explained how to use the toaster and gave him the WiFi password. Then came that awkward moment when you’ve been really looking forward to seeing someone, and then you’re like, “OK, what do we talk about now?” But the truth is, we were all a little too tired for chit-chat, and other than saying “Yeah,” his vocabulary was kinda shitty.
The next morning, I sat and said Buddhist prayers, staring into my infant son’s steel blue eyes, and I thought of the exhibit at the planetarium: the one where they show you how big the universe is, and how small we are. I looked into the charcoal tips of his pupils and wondered about the edges of space and time, where he came from before he was born, where we go after we die, and how I couldn’t remember who I was before this riptide of love changed me forever.
Dimitri Ehrlich is a songwriter and author. His writing has been featured in the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Spin, Details, and the Huffington Post, where the Daddy Diaries originally appeared.
A life long student of Buddhism and martial arts, Dimitri has travelled across Vietnam, Cuba, Cambodia, India, Nepal, China and Tibet, jammed with Moby, Prince and the Beastie Boys, and gotten drunk with Keith Richards, none of which compares to becoming a father.