Band of Fathers

My wife offered to buy me a stove for my birthday. We were having dinner at a neighborhood restaurant when she made the suggestion – just a suggestion, she assured me, a joke if I wanted to look at it that way – but the joke was on her. True, back in the day – that storied day when men wore hats and worked for one company most of their lives – any husband who even thought of buying an appliance as a gift for his wife was toast. And any wife receiving said appliance, whether a new Amana range or a Veg-o-matic, got a lawyer or a lover (or both). Me, I just blinked and said, “The thirty-inch Wolf range?”

I’ll risk a generalization to observe that guys like gizmos more than women do, and as more men take to the kitchen you see items undreamed of in my mother’s time – a $400 Italian mix-master, for instance, not to mention a $4000 range. It’s like the power-mower phenomenon moved indoors.     But I’ve always been the cook in our house and no weekend warrior, either. I enjoy cooking and am better at it than my wife is, probably because I enjoy it. My mother was such a bad cook that when I was a boy I would pretend that I was a prisoner of war being forced by Nazis to eat her creative offerings – macaroni and cheese studded with sliced hot dogs, say. My younger brother and fellow POW, Ethan, and I learned to fend for ourselves in the kitchen, and after our parents divorced we took turns cleaning too, along with my younger sister, while our mother was at work. What used to be called women’s work has always been second nature to us.

But I never thought of it as my calling. Whatever satisfaction I derived from cooking – or schlepping laundry or scrubbing floors – came in part from the knowledge that I could, and would, be doing something else. I cooked and cleaned and changed diapers and made lunch for my kids because my work – writing and editing, often from home – allowed me to. Though I mocked weekend dads as Gentlemen Fathers, as cut off from the real toil of parenthood as gentlemen farmers were from plowing the fields, the truth was that I no more wanted to be a Mr. Mom, a fulltime housedad, than I wanted to get behind the mule.

Well, hee-haw. Two years ago I was laid off from my last fulltime job and it turned out I was ahead of the curve. People who had been calling me with job offers were suddenly calling me for leads, and the only reason I didn’t see them selling pencils on the sidewalks of New York is that we all use word processors now. My wife, in the meantime, has done just fine, moving from one editing job to another and making a salary more than three times what I pulled down last year.

The tears on my cheeks are from laughter.

Meanwhile my brother Ethan, back in San Francisco, found himself in very similar circumstances. The high-tech parts company he sold for in Silicon Valley laid him off late in 2001 and almost immediately afterwards his wife took a lucrative marketing position with a nationally known cookware retailer. Suddenly we were both home taking care of the kids – he has two, a daughter, Ali, who’s 8, and a son, Finnegan, now 3, as do I: Franny, 9, and Adam, 18 – the house and all that that implies. In the last year we have compared notes, via email and cellphone, on grocery shopping and the fortunes of the SF Giants. Sometimes I send him recipes, sometimes he sends me porn.

Are we not men?

***

Despite the time difference Ethan and I are on pretty much the same schedule. Since Finn gets up at about 6:15 every morning, Ethan tries to beat him by fifteen minutes for what might be laughably called “me time,” which for him consists of reading yesterday’s front page before today’s paper arrives. He emails me on the first day of Finn’s swimming lessons at the Y:

Fifteen minutes late for Finn’s lesson. Seems everyone is arriving at this time. Most look more frazzled then us. Parents with toddlers in the pool. I picture a helpful teenage girl coming and taking him and showing how to kick, breathe etc. No, not the case. Boom-box at poolside blasting “Wheels on the Bus” and parents all singing and bobbing with kids. I picture some our childless friends standing on the side saying, “See, that’s why!” Finn starts to have fun and so do I. After a half hour of similar activities my arm starts to hurt. This is what my doctor refers to as “two year old” arm. I take her advice. I switch arms.

I recall the days of two-year-old arm rather fondly myself. Franny lets me hold her now with the resigned air of a hostage, though that aloof nine-year-old routine seems like a pose, a rude t-shirt she’s trying on. Some parents have told me that nine is the adolescence of elementary school. For girls, maybe. When Adam was nine, he acted like a nine-year-old boy, ie Bart Simpson. Maybe aloof is better.

***

Come the fall and all of our kids are back in school, which opens my day up considerably. Or would. We have an old house in Brooklyn and tapped ourselves out buying it five years ago. Like some old sailor on his last legs, everything seems to be going at once. The floors are buckling because water is getting in from somewhere into the sub-floor, warping the wood. Before I can get the floors fixed I’ve got to get someone to figure out where the leaks are. Before someone can figure out where the leaks are they have to come look at the rear walls. In New York, getting somebody to come do anything – even haul away furniture you’re donating – is a fulltime job. I’m on the phone to the floor guy and the waterproofing guy trying to coordinate their visits when my son calls. He’s left his homework on his desk, could I fax it to his school? While doing so I make the mistake of glancing at his essay on the Articles of Confederation. He has conflated twenty years of colonial history and created composite characters from the Founding Brothers. He may have a future as a movie producer.

***

Ethan calls me while I’m grocery shopping that afternoon; he’s doing the same thing back in SF with Finn in the cart and Ali in tow. “I woke up thinking about food,” he tells me. “That’s the reason men are better cooks than women. We think about it all the time.” I had emailed him a Chinese recipe I found in the NY Times that involved creamed corn and he was double-checking. Was this for real? Yes, I assured him and kids liked it too.

Over the phone I can hear Ali yelling. They are already in the Safeway parking lot and I’m still at the Key Food deli counter, waiting. “Speed racer!” she cries, audibly a continent away. This, my brother later explains, is when he runs through the parking lot pushing the cart with Finn in the child seat and Ali hanging on the front, imperiling all of them and innocent bystanders to boot. Like to see Mom do that.

                         ***

One day I decide to make chocolate chip cookies with Franny after school. It’s a reward of sorts – she has finished her homework, practiced piano, washed her hair all without benefit of television, which we’ve banned during the school week – but I have an ulterior motive. I really like chocolate chip cookies. But where our last experiment in cookie baking was a raging success, nothing goes right this time. The dough’s lumpy. There’s not enough sugar. And then for reasons I can’t fathom, the oven won’t get hot enough to bake them. They just sit there, in this ancient Tappen oven that was new when I was still listening to the Sex Pistols, sweating in little warm lumps. My daughter loses interest and I put some water on for pasta (at least the range still works). Peggy said she’d be home about eight.

Thinking about the Sex Pistols must have reminded me of college because soon I’m brooding about my wasted English BA as I dice vegetables and try to drown out my memories with NPR. I had wanted to be a real writer, the kind whose photo you find on the back of books, and instead I’m questioning Marcella Hazan’s predilection for butter. I am reminded of a Cheever story in which a housewife hangs her college degree over the sink until the joke gets old and she puts it back in a box. I think I’m becoming a feminist.

The pasta water nearly boils away. Adam wanders in, guitar strung around his neck, to ask when we might be eating. “As soon as Peggy deigns to make an appearance,” I snap and then the phone rings. It’s my wife herself, now she’s leaving for real, she just got caught up in a meeting and there was an email she had to respond to –

“Did you ever hear of the phone?” I ask and hang up before she can answer. Yes, it’s come to this.

***

Ethan and I are in close contact during the World Series; the Giants are making an appearance for the first time in over a decade and might actually have a shot at beating the Angels. We compare notes on the uppity house-boy routine we’ve both fallen into. “Don’t know if it cabin fever but somedays I do feel trapped,” he tells me in an email

That combined with the fact that on most of those days I can’t even seem to squeeze a workout in. That is usually my ace in the hole if I am in a shitty way. Any of my other forms of relief are none too healthy for body or marriage. And we do try to remember to be nice to each other. If anybody slips there it is usually me and I thank dear old dad every time. Least I don’t drink bourbon and slap anybody.

Then he tells me that a job he had been courting is on and he should be back to work come January. I feel like South Vietnamese soldier in Saigon watching the last US helicopter leaving. He’s got tickets to tonight’s game, too, he says. “Watch for me on TV, I’ll be the guy in the Giants cap with a beer.”

The Giants win that night but go on to lose the series, 4-3. The waterproofing estimate comes in at $4500, before tax. The floor work is estimated at a relatively modest $1400. Meanwhile our mother seems to be losing her marbles and Ethan has started looking at retirement homes in the Bay Area. He took her on a tour of one; afterwards she said it was okay but she didn’t “like a lot of old people.” He emails me the next day:

I took Finn to a Montessori school for a visit this morning and was watching him being gently tested by the woman. I had to fight myself not to yell the answers and move the blocks for him. This is how I feel with Mom. I wish I could turn back the hands of time and bring her mind back into sync. Everyday I realize a more that this will never happen.

I’d love to fly back there and provide some support but can’t afford to leave for a week. Franny’s piano teacher tells me her timing is off. I say mine isn’t so good, either.

***

Peg and I get into a huge fight coming back from the Home Depot Expo one Sunday. Turned out the Wolf range I had my eye on needed six inches on either side because they run so hot, which would mean replacing the kitchen counter and cabinets. Ours are tragically prefab anyway and falling apart, and when they go, so goes the dishwasher, the sink and the leaky faucet. The floors, as I mentioned, are pretty well shot and  while we’re at it, those pantry shelves should go, too, along with the refrigerator. We’ve gone from a $4000 range to a $70,000 kitchen remodeling in the course of a few hours and the conversation that follows – touching on money, responsibility, opportunity, and all the places we’ve never been – is as sudden and ugly as a dust devil. Funny how you can go from window-shopping to visions of joint custody in under an hour. Afterwards we take turns saying we’re sorry, uncertain of what we’re apologizing for.

I call Ethan the next day and of course I don’t talk about the fight with my wife. Instead we speculate on where Giants manager Dusty Baker will end up next season. Ethan just signed the papers on his new job, a flextime sales position that will let him spend some time at home while making real money. “Now that it looks like the end is near of my stay-at-home stage I’m already missing it,” he tells me and suddenly I am filled with resentment. Short-timer, I think to myself, it’s a lot easier to wipe up one more spill when you’re not thinking of doing the same thing tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow… My pettiness depresses me and I ring off without saying anything.

For $130 a bald Russian comes and replaces the “bake igniter” in my oven and soon Franny and I are making cookies again. The sweet smell fills the house and makes me forget my nameless bitterness. As much as I chafe at my life and its boundaries right now, there are times I think I could spend eternity baking with my daughter.

As my son was packing to go see his mother over winter break I decided to give him a shaving kit that I was going to put under the tree. It was a very small gesture – the sight of him putting his pills and potions in a plastic bag was too depressing – and he would be traveling a lot soon, with college right around the corner. My father was not around for me at that age, so I probably attached more significance to the gesture than he did. “Cool,” was all he said, and turned up the stereo.

An email from Ethan:

Shaving in the bathroom. Finn walks in, “Wha’ are you doing?” Shaving. “Can I shave?” No, sweet boy, you have to be big toshave. Leaves, comes back with two sticks. One big, one small. Holds the big one upright and uses the little one to play it like a cello while humming. I ask, “What are you doing?” He says, “Singing”. I tell him he looks like he playing the cello. He says, “I play jello”. I ask, “Can I play the jello?” He says, “No, you have to be little.”

Make us all little again.

(Published in O: The Oprah Magazine, June 2003)

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