Friday, December 26, 2008

#125 - Another Father's Day

Another Father's Day

12/26/08 (#125)

I could hear my daughter's hurried footsteps behind the creak of the front door as I came home from work, moments before her urgently blurted, "Dad, I'm learning to play Scrabble!!!" She's six, and has been watching mom and dad play the game for her entire life, and now that she is actively reading and spelling, Sage's mom decided to initiate her into the game. It was obvious that Sage saw the invitation as an acknowledgment of her maturity, a rite of passage into something closer to adulthood. (I was also delighted to hear her first phrase upon returning to the game, a lamentation to her mom: "I wish I had another 'O', I could make 'zoo'." Ahhh, The frustration of not having one crucial letter for a big score---she sounds like a veteran Scrabble player already.)

Before I became a father, no one mentioned to me how thrilling it would be hear that phrase exploding from my daughter's soul. It's one of myriad things that no one ever told me about, because these things are both frequent and fleeting, the day-to-day deliciousness that makes parenting a pleasure. When I was younger and asked people how they liked being parents, their responses rarely indicated that fatherhood was worthy of pursuit. The responses were enthusiastic, but they offered unconvincing moments of evidence because it was the language of their life, not mine. Ever hear someone say, "When you have kids, your whole life changes"? I got that impression, because parents described a life that was unfamiliar to me. No one ever mentioned, and I lacked the foresight to imagine, that my six-year old daughter would one day lay "gland" on the Scrabble board and immediately defend it with, "It's a word. It's in my body book." I've had many great days in my life, but none better than this one.

I've come to realize that parenting is impossible to accurately convey. Non-parents are inundated with too much information, accurate and inaccurate, to have any context for processing it all. It's like flying into Tokyo and 20 minutes before landing, every person on the plane starts simultaneously telling you where to go and what to do and what to beware of, most of the voices in broken English with foreign words. By the time you land, you've learned nothing, you've simply been overwhelmed with mostly irrelevant information. (At least that's how I felt when it was happening to me.) My advice to the curious is not to ask everyone; just look for folks on the plane who dress a bit like you, maybe read the magazines that you like, and quietly ask, "Any favorite places in Tokyo?"

My friend Doug was the first of my close friends to have a child in our adult life, and I recall asking him what it's like to be a father: "You never know how much love you have inside you until you're a dad." Doug seemed to understand that there was no way to put his feelings into a context I would understand: People can love their nieces and nephews, can adore their coworkers babies, can revel in a talkative toddler on the bus, but in the end, the age-old adage "it's different when their yours" is astoundingly profound. (Despite it's common use as explanation for how one could endure the crying of an infant or the tantrums of a toddler.)

To use another travel metaphor, imagine describing a trip along the Columbia Gorge to someone who has never taken the trip. If you're like me, you'll mention the expansive view from Vista House, the awesome magnificence of Multnomah Falls, the delightful collision of quaintness and cool that is Hood River. These are all wonderful stops on that journey, and shouldn't be missed, yet what makes that drive wonderful to me isn't those items: It's the little fruit stand just south of Hood River that offers samples of their ridiculously delicious jams (blueberry amaretto is a favorite) and serves improbably fresh-tasting huckleberry shakes; it's the moss-enveloped stone of the guide rail along the old scenic highway that offers a momentary feeling that I am driving through the past, a lifetime previous, when this two-lane road was enough and the six-lane freeway below would have been a farcical idea; it's the miles of conversation with my wife, who after sixteen years together is still my favorite companion for that (or any) drive. It's these personal things that make that drive a pleasure, just as you have your own secret stops that make that journey special for you.

The same is true for parenting: It's a road traveled by many, but there are uncountable numbers of rest areas and detours and travel rituals that make the journey yours alone.

I'm reminded of the art of Jan Vermeer, the Dutch artist whose paintings transcend mere realism and achieve an accuracy that so-called reality doesn't offer: The bricks of his buildings look more realistic than actual bricks; the light through the window is so true that if you look long enough, you expect it to change as the sun in the painting slowly sets. To describe the subject matter of a Vermeer work is meaningless: The joy is in the details, tiny brush strokes that reveal a secret that seems to have been spoken directly to you.

What's it like to be a father? For me, it has revealed that the world is made up of an infinite number of tiny brush strokes; has reminded me that the milestones are nice but happiness lays between them; that Doug was right about the capacity of love; and last but not least, life is sweet, with or without that second letter "O".

©2008 wpreagan

Monday, December 1, 2008

#124 - All in Stride

All in Stride

9/27/08 (#123)

I take the same bus to work every day, at the same time, so despite my journey including splendid architecture, views of several bridges, even passing under the odd and intriguing Portland Tram, my reality is like that of everyone else who does the same commute each day: scenic redundancy is a fact of life. Sure, the National College of Natural Medicine is a great building, but except for variations in which windows are illuminated, it looks the same on Friday as it did on Tuesday. Since the physical landscape rarely changes, my eyes gravitate to more transient visual stimuli---namely, people. But not just people. Particularly, stride.

I read a factoid long ago that in all most cultures, all other things being equal, women are attracted to men who walk quickly. (A bit of information that briefly inspired me to adjust my gait to something closely resembling speed-walking.) The theory is based on primal survival instincts: Men who walk quickly have more energy, will get more done, and are more likely to be good providers.

This science came into my mind as I stared out the bus window one morning and watched a woman with a strong, confident stride navigating the morning crowds on Third Avenue. She easily outpaced everyone with whom she shared the sidewalk, yet she looked completely unhurried, as if her speed resulted not from effort but from efficiency, the sum of mechanical precision and natural grace. Our paths were parallel for a couple of blocks (a red light helping to keep the race close), and I was riveted: I could not see her face, her November clothing disguised her figure, yet my eyes followed every step. She turned the corner on Jefferson while my bus continued on Third, the rhythm of her stride resonating in my mind.

While I grant that, as that old factoid implied, I may possess a subconscious attraction for physical proficiency (if it’s true for women, it’s likely true for men), the lingering essence of this woman was her beat. Think of drumming as an art form: A good drummer can play in odd time signatures, cleverly massage the downbeat or perform complex polyrhythmic patterns, yet it’s usually a strong, simple beat that convinces people to tap their feet and wiggle their hips. Our bodies respond to certain rhythms, which goes a long way toward explaining why James Brown sold a lot more records than Frank Zappa. I think that’s why the graceful woman was so compelling to me: She demonstrated a simple, solid beat that perfectly accompanied the rhythm of the morning.

Such rhythms are uncommon in the people I see walking downtown. While the average American worker on the average workday walks with an obligatory sense of meter---without it, we would lurch and stumble like drunkards responding to the opening strains of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)”---our walking, to continue the drum metaphor, tends to be full of flams and slippery downbeats, adhering to strict-time with the same accuracy that an all-audience clap-along follows the beat at a music concert. Our thoughts are diverted elsewhere, our eyes are diverted elsewhere, and our stride reverts to a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other autopilot, completely functional but with the time-keeping skill of the drummer in your junior high school orchestra.

In these pre-coffee hours, the downtown sidewalks feature a variety of walking styles: Shufflers, who seem as if they are not walking toward their destination so much as simply walking to the next spot on the sidewalk; Plodders, whose feet seem to be unfairly affected by gravity, their steps landing like magnets upon metal; Sherpas, whose gait is sullied by the collective weight of an inexplicably large load of shoulder bags and briefcases; and Tumbleweeds, whose inconsistent pacing results from being unwitting pawns to random neon signs and window displays, recognizable because the person walking behind them wears a fierce grimace as they try to find a comfortable pace of their own. At different times, I am each of these types (sometimes simultaneously) but I searched my muscle memory and could not recall the last time I had strode as fluently, as easily as that one woman did.

In high school, my friend Bernie confided his methodology for walking across a gymnasium or cafeteria floor when eyes are upon him: Recall the opening strains of U2’s “Sunday Bloody Sunday” and walk to that imaginary beat. Good advice---the song’s anthemic muscle and militaristic snare beat offers a perfect soundtrack to a strong, steady gate, and by keeping that song in one’s head, it naturally trickled down to the feet. As the years passed, the duties of that song as an imaginary metronome have been transferred to Young MC’s “Bust a Move”, which has a similar insistent rhythm but adds an element of shoulder-swaying strut. (Plus, you get to smile over lines like “every dark tunnel has a light of hope, so don’t hang yourself with a celibate rope.”)

I wonder if the woman I witnessed on Third Avenue has a song that she conjures to provide a soundtrack to her stride---perhaps silently singing Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” or The Roots’ “I Don’t Care”. Or maybe she is like any good drummer, so thoroughly practiced that she creates the illusion that it’s easy. I’ll likely never know, and that’s fine: I’m not interested in mimicking her method; I’m interested in achieving her results, in adding a little more funk and a little less function to the beat of my feet. I want to feel in my own stride the feeling I had when I watched her walk: That her gait was not in rhythm with the world, but that the world adjusted itself to follow her rhythm. From the confines of the bus, it looked like a wonderful way of walking.