I Did Not Anticipate This

Part of getting a little bit older has been admitting the parts of personality – good and bad – that are basically baked in, either due to genetics or my upbringing. Admitting my own helplessness in this regard has been largely a good thing, but it comes with some obvious drawbacks when it comes to big life changes. So when I found out that I was going to be a Dad in 2016, it was often hard for me to shake the feeling that I wasn’t up to the task of parenting, and that this failure was somehow beyond my control. I always had a pretty good sense that I’d be up to the domestic tasks – the diaper-changing, the nap schedules, the otherwise fatherly participation in the rituals of parenting. But what really frightened me were the elements of parenting that I didn’t have any control over –  Would I really love him enough? Would I resent him for changing my life so acutely? Would I be spending most of my waking hours with him out of obligation instead of love? Despite the raft of literature on parenting (to be clear, I have read none of it), there doesn’t seem to be much guidance on this front.

I know I’m supposed to say “I fell in love with him the first time I saw him.” And that’s true, in a way. Something did click when Simon was born, when it turned out that he was a real, breathing human instead of just a concept trapped inside a belly. And a lot of my other nagging concerns were answered early on: Not only was I good at fulfilling my fatherly duties -changing diapers was oddly satisfying (no one talks about this), and my adherence to a sleeping schedule easily could have been diagnosed as a mental disorder – but my sense of responsibility towards his well-being was rooted almost exclusively in my love for him. After a few months, I found myself thinking, “yeah, I can do this.” I had NO idea what I was talking about. I had NO idea what I was in for. I probably STILL don’t, because as it turns out parenthood is a form of insanity that alters your brain chemistry faster than you can possibly keep track of it.

Right from the start, Simon had this knack for producing ridiculous moments where a kind of love I didn’t know existed in me would just get sling-shotted to the surface, and these moments seem to happen every day. A couple of months ago we brought him into bed early one morning, and after some quiet snuggling, he lifted up his head to look me in the eye, broke into a huge smile, and whispered “good morning,” which sounded like “good moaning” but with a long and exagerrated “o” sound. We recently upgraded to a toddler bed, and the other night I was lying in bed with him at bedtime. At one point I lifted my head up to see if he was asleep, and he immediately reached his hand to forcefully push my head back onto the pillow, with a simple command: “Dada snuggle.” I experience each of these moments like tiny deaths. All of my brain synapses fire at once. My heart leaps out of my chest and punches me in the face. I hardly know what to do with myself.

Then there’s the fear. I thought that as he got older and less fragile, this would dissipate. I could not have been more wrong. The morning after my 35th birthday, Simon climbed out of his crib for the first time, and when I went into his room I could hear him crying but I couldn’t find him, which is the literal plot of 100% of my parenting nightmares. As it turned out he had landed in his clothes hamper face down and was helplessly screaming into his dirty clothes during the 60 seconds when I was looking for him – 60 seconds where I wasn’t there for him, where he was helpless and all alone, where he didn’t know where I was. And while he forgot about the whole thing in about five minutes, I’ve thought about it every day since. A couple of weeks ago he fell out of his chair after dinner and hit his head – a scene which replayed in my head over and over again as I tried to fall asleep that night. The other day, I was downstairs watching a movie after he had gone to bed, when I heard his crying upstairs immediately followed by Laura’s hurried footsteps to his room. And while I “knew” that nothing was actually wrong, that sound – the crying, the footsteps, the running – was enough to make me want to die. Because losing him is never far from my mind. Because every day that he is alive, there is more of him to lose, and more of me that he would take with him.

I know it’s only been two years, which means the verdict on my parenting disposition is far from decided, and my helplessness in the face of all of it is more apparent than ever. He’s at an age where he’s still pretty obsessed with me and his Mom, which is in equal parts amazing and transient – so much can happen in the next 30 years. Maybe someday he’ll decide that he’s a Libertarian, maybe he’ll decide to use his considerable brainpower to get into investment banking or the oil industry. Maybe he’ll decide that his bleeding heart Dad is just a disillusioned kook who isn’t worth seeing during the Holidays. Or maybe as I reach old age, my grip of reality will slip just enough that I start to view him as an enemy. Maybe the physical degeneration of my brain tissue will cause me to disown him because of some imagined slight. Anything can happen, and so much of it is still beyond my control.

But right now, this shit is real fuckin’ good; better than any drug I’ve ever done. And it seeps into every part of my life. I’m constantly stopping myself from over-sharing the most mundane parenting anecdotes with my friends who aren’t parents, because COME ON have you seen this kid? Have you ever watched him eat blueberries? Have you ever heard how he says the words “I love you?” (“Ah wah wah”) FOR GOD’S SAKE, HE POINTED AT A GUY WITH A BEARD ON THE FERRY AND CALLED HIM SANTA, HOW IS THIS NOT THE FUNNIEST THING YOU’VE EVER HEARD, WHY ARE YOU WALKING AWAY FROM ME, WHY WON’T YOU RETURN MY CALLS I JUST WANT TO TELL YOU ABOUT MY SON.

This love is painful. It’s bracing. It fills my every waking moment. It feels like too much to contain. That probably sounds like bragging, and it might be. But have you seen the fucking face on this kid? Have you heard his voice? Have you put him in timeout, only to discover that he feels and expresses genuine regret at the act that put him there? Have you watched him shuffle out of his bedroom in the morning while rubbing his eyes, in a slow-march-to-inevitable-snuggles, on a collision course for you? Have you held his sobbing body after he’s hurt himself? Has he asked you, unprompted, for a kiss? Have you lied down next to him as he’s falling asleep, your face only inches from his, and been 100% certain that he is falling asleep both knowing that he is loved and thinking about how much he loves you in return? No, you haven’t. Not with this kid. Because you didn’t have anything to do with his creation.

That’s MY son, and I’m his Dad. And I couldn’t be happier with this arrangement.

The New Joint

open kitchen

It’s a newer restaurant, but you recognize the aesthetic. It’s a small, “intimate” space. In fact, the lack of space is screaming at you, telling you how valuable the seat you’re occupying is, and the prices on the menu back it up.

Because it’s so cramped, you’re concerned that your conversations might bleed into those of the people next to you. But you needn’t worry about that – as soon as you sit down, you can’t hear anything. The music is loud, and the pace inside is frenetic. The dishwasher is running. There are plates being moved, pots and pans crashing. It’s an “open kitchen” design, so you can look on as the cooks, servers, and bartenders all work at breakneck speed. You marvel at their efficiency in such a cramped space, at how they never seem to slow down. There’s only one person making drinks, and he impresses you with both his speed and his attention to detail.

Luckily, you didn’t come here to relax. In fact, there’s nothing remotely relaxing about this experience. There’s a feeling of high anxiety throughout the joint. When you get up to use the restroom (It’s called a Wash Closet here), you’ll almost certainly be in someone’s way, so you’ve got to keep your eyes peeled and be ready to move out of the way quickly. Even in your seat, it seems like people are constantly trying to squeeze by you. The value of the space you’re sitting in is further reinforced by the cadre of people you see gathered by the entryway awaiting their turn to get a crack at the menu.

The workers are sweating away in front of you and getting something close to minimum wage from the people who own the place. You know – as they do – that their bread is buttered by the tips they make, and that knowledge brings you a level of satisfaction. You monitor them closely, and if they fail to meet your expectations – if you see them linger a little too long in the kitchen or if they get your drink order wrong – you’ll punish them by decreasing their take home pay. In this place, you’re not just a customer – you’re the employer. This knowledge seems to make the food taste better.

As you finish eating, you conclude that the waitstaff has performed admirably. Your food arrived in a timely fashion and was arranged with obvious attention to detail. You know that as soon as you exit the restaurant, you’re entering a world that makes you feel completely powerless, so you order one more drink and smile to yourself as you watch the bartender rub the lemon peel around the edge of the glass – something you didn’t even know you wanted until you saw it happen. That man just earned himself a good tip, you think.

You still feel like shit, and you’ll feel even worse in the morning. But you can’t wait to tell your friends about this place.

Smoke and Ruin

Oddly enough, I feel it in my stomach first. It’s the feeling that I’ve swallowed mouthfuls of ash, and those mouthfuls have collected into a giant clump of black tar in my digestive system. Eventually, my eyes burn and it hurts to breathe. Outside, the light is pale, subdued, tinted yellow. Even noises are muffled – the sound of your own footsteps might struggle to make it to your ears. Everything is dim, contained. At night, the moon turns blood red, and you could be forgiven for thinking that it feels like the end of the world.

When I was a kid, I used to hear stories about the Yellowstone Park fires of 1988. I have vague memories of being able to see the smoke in Billings, but it’s hard for me to know if those memories are real or not. What I do know is that people talked about that fire as if it was a once-in-a-lifetime event. Smoke making it all the way to Billings was rare, and in the 15 years that ensued, I never once experienced the feeling of having forest fire smoke invade the place that I live.

In 2004, things started to change. By that time, I was living in Missoula, and for much of that summer the valley was shrouded in smoke, and it hurt my lungs to run. At the time it seemed like a unique event, but every summer after that seemed to involve a similar event – at least one fire whose smoke hung over the valley for a week or so. Before I knew it summer smoke became a feature, not a bug – and during that time the same became true of my hometown of Billings.  

In late 2008, I moved to Portland, and summers went back to normal. I never experienced summertime smoke from forest fires for my first six years living here. The first time it showed up – three summers ago – it was treated as a unique event. Of course, it’s happened every summer since, to the extent that we’ve become accustomed to it. And today – as we are watching some of our most iconic landmarks get engulfed in flames – it feels even more stark. It feels unique.  Will we grow accustomed to this as well?

I’m now able to track many of the important changes in my life to the fires that were raging and the smoke that I was breathing in when they happened. After almost six years of working at the Albertson’s at Eastgate Plaza in Missoula,  I spent the majority of my final night shift in the loading area behind the store, sitting by the river. It was July 10th, 2008, and Mount Sentinel was literally burning across the river from me. Watching the fire creep up the mountain was completely mesmerizing. So it was that my shift from difficult low-wage labor to some vestige of an easier, more “educated” lifestyle was marked by fire. 

Last summer, Laura and I spent the last days of our honeymoon north of Fairbanks, and we were awakened on our last morning by the intense smell of smoke and an unsettling uncertainty as to where the fire that was causing it was coming from. So it was that our transition into married life was marked by fire.

This morning was Simon’s first day of daycare – and after we brushed all of the ash off of the car, we drove him east, towards the fire, leaving a wake of gray dust behind us.  And when we dropped him off and headed back west, I was keenly aware that we were leaving him closer to the fire than we were.  And though the fire posed no risk to structures within city limits, I couldn’t help but feel that we were putting him in harm’s way.  It was deeply irrational but unsettling nonetheless.  This will be another indelible memory that is added to the collection – a series of events in my life that have been punctuated by the destruction of the world around me. It’s shocking, disheartening, oppressive. So it was that our transition into parenthood has been marked by fire.

One of my inaugural acts as an adult in my early 20s was driving to Portland from Missoula for the first time.  When we pulled over in Cascade Locks, I was overwhelmed by how green everything was – it felt like I was in a tropical rainforest. I still feel that every time I go there. My favorite trail runs since I moved here have been on Eagle Creek trail and the trails that wind behind Multnomah Falls towards Larch Mountain. My best hiking memories with my closest friends are all in that area. It’s all burning now. Will we mourn it, or will we just get used to it?

It’s all starting to blend together. It’s all starting to become commonplace. The debate in Portland over the next couple of weeks will be over the appropriate use of fireworks by individial actors, because we are absolutely incapable of grasping the larger global event that we are witness to. You can see already that the outrage generated by this fire will be misdirected.  The actions of these individual kids will be scrutinized endlessly, the location of their parents at the time of their actions will be speculated upon by an anxious public looking for a place to direct their outrage. “Kids these days,” people will say, ignoring the objective reality that it’s the “adults these days” who have allowed this global catastrophe to take place in front of our eyes.

There’s a reason that our ire will be directed at the actions of these individual kids. Our broken political and economic system is collapsing and we have two political parties who are fundamentally committed to maintaining the status quo. And while we are in desperate need of a radical change of direction, there is absolutely no collective will to make that change happen. That’s why the only collective action that we’ll likely be able to muster out of this tragedy will be the institution of a harsher carcereal punishment for future kids who do stupid things. Our focus on them will allow us to continue to ignore the rot that exist at the very core of our system. It will allow us to continue to ignore our own complicity in allowing this broken system to continue.

None of the solutions that are coming down the pike will do anything to address the central problem that caused these fires. There will be genuine outrage, but it will be funneled into the only acceptable practice that our system allows- punching down instead of up. Bashing “kids these days” instead of the political and economic system that is allowing climate change to happen. Slamming the actions of these 15-year old peons while our leaders and the 1% that they serve continue to feed their insatiable lust for wealth accumulation on the backs of the people whose labor they are stealing, at the expense of the planet they are destroying.

The fire is coming our way, and it’s moving much faster than we think. Yet here we are, dropping our children off in its path. We’re driving away from the fire and leaving them behind. No matter what anyone tells you, WE are responsible for what happens to them.  Not some dumb kids with fireworks.  Not some thoughtless parents whose location we can’t determine.  It’s us.

Dear Thomas

Dear Thomas,

The day that you took your own life, you were 17 years and 6 days old – a mere 18 days older than I was when I became your father.  For your first 48 hours, I was both your biological and legal guardian, and when that time was up, I gave up my responsibility to the one part of that equation that I had any say in.  In doing so, I relinquished the vast majority of responsibility for your well-being to a beautiful family who wanted that responsibility much more than I did.  None of us had any idea what a pernicious concoction of mental illnesses we’d passed onto you, and what the very act of adopting you would do to compound those illnesses.  For my part, I was relieved that I was not going to be the one doing the hard work of finding those things out.

I’ve actually been thinking about you a lot in the past couple of weeks.  I’ve been thinking about how difficult it must be to go through your adolescence in a virtual space, with so few social barriers to keep you from interactions that may be harmful.  In this weird virtual space, I saw you struggling – with an ex-girlfriend, with suicidal thoughts, and with a deep and horrible self-loathing.  And as I have during other times, I thought – “he’ll get through this.  He’ll come out the other side stronger.”  And maybe you would have, had you given yourself the chance.  But the weight of the pain and anguish that came with this particular breakdown – layered upon past breakdowns – proved to be too much for you.

Though I’ve been thinking about you a lot lately, the truth is that there were a great many times when I’ve forgotten about you.  And now I can’t help but wonder – did I forget about you on accident or did I forget you on purpose?  You haven’t been part of my story for a long time, nor have you been a part of the story I tell others about myself.  I determined at the age of 16 that there was no place for you in my life, and I determined later in my life – either for convenience out of care for my own self-image –  that there was no place for you in the narrative of my life either.  I moved on, I carried on.

But you sought out connection with me via social media.  I kept track of you, and I wondered what you saw when you looked at my Facebook profile.  What I hoped you saw was a vision of a possible future for yourself – your biological father who made it through a difficult adolescence to find a semblance of happiness on the other side.  But now that you’re gone, I wonder:  Did you just see another family that had no place for you?  Did you see a life that you had been deliberately excised from?  Did you see someone who made the choice to move on from you after 48 hours, and was better off in your absence?

image6

“It’s OK to touch him, you know.”  My Dad and I were standing above you in the delivery room as you lay helpless in the newborn crib.  Nothing had prepared me for the feeling I would have when you were born.  And when you were lying there, I didn’t know what to do.  My Dad put his hand on you – how small you were! – and told me that it was OK for me to do the same.  I still needed that at that point in my life – I needed someone to tell me that  it was OK.  I know that up until your last hours, you had many people in your life doing the same for you.  They told you it was OK, that you would get through this.  They told you that leaving everyone behind was the wrong choice, that you were loved and that the pain would be too great for everyone to bear.  But how could they have possibly understood the kind of pain that makes someone end their life the way that you did?  How could they possibly be seeing the same picture as you?  How could the pain you were dealing with – over, and over, and over again – possibly be worth enduring for any longer?  They didn’t understand.  I didn’t understand.

I remember when I was your age, I went on a date with a girl and was subsequently refused a second date.  So, I did what young men do, and I showed up to her house unannounced.  Right when she opened the door, she said, “please don’t fucking cry.”  She was familiar with boys my age.  So of course I fucking cried. I ended up crying over every girl who gave me so much as a tender look without subsequently agreeing to be mine forever.  I didn’t know that shit was practice.  I didn’t know that I’d be practicing for 10 more years before I felt even remotely OK about myself.  And that’s not to say that people didn’t tell me- of course they did!  But another highlight of being that age is that the emotions we feel are so intense, so visceral – that a calm explanation of the realities of our situation doesn’t hold a candle to what’s burning inside of us.  What a mess I was – and there wasn’t a single person on earth that could tell me that those peaks and valleys would level out.  That I would find some degree of contentment, eventually.  That it was worth sticking around to find out what lay on the other side.  I had to make that decision on my own.

It’s easy to become convinced as we’re growing up that there’s certainty all around us.  Everyone just seems to know what they’re doing.  The world we live in promotes the “fake it till you make it” mentality writ large.  There’s church in everything.  People are conditioned to gather in large groups and vocalize their certainty of purpose.  We’re told that God has a purpose for us too, and that if we say it often enough, it will become true.  But what does that mean for those of us who are struggling to find our place?  What does it mean when when everyone tells us that that we are supposed to feel something at a particular moment, but find only emptiness?  It’s oppressive – and at a young age it’s impossible to convince ourselves that problems lie anywhere other than within ourselves.

One of my favorite movies of the past year was Arrival.  The movie itself centers on the loss of a child.  The central question it asks the parent is: If you had this all to do over again, would you?  Would you choose to bring this life into the world knowing that it would eventually be taken from you?  It was beautiful, poignant, and it helped me deal with losses that my family has already endured.  For those losses, the answer was clearly yes – of course we would make those choices again.  But what’s the answer with you, Thomas? Would I make that choice again, knowing that the person I brought into this world would exit it 17 years later, a tortured soul full of pain and self-loathing?  Did you experience joy often enough to make the pain worth it?

image2

There’s no playbook for this, Thomas.  I’m not your Dad.  But you were very much my son.  The things that you couldn’t control in yourself were the things that I couldn’t control creating within you.  The pieces that were broken inside of you were pieces that I gave to you.  Some of them were pieces that were mercifully dormant within me, and some were pieces that I broke by the very way in which you were created.  Yet I passed them onto you nonetheless.  So what’s my role in this, now?  How do I grieve a son who wasn’t really my son?  How do I say goodbye to a son I barely knew?

I just… I thought you were going to call.  I was waiting for your call.  I wanted to talk to you.  I wanted to tell you that there’s a place for you in this world.  That there’s a level of rationality in looking around and saying to yourself “this is incredibly fucked up, I can’t do this any more, these people are all fucking crazy.”  You weren’t wrong in thinking those things.  But we live in a big world, in a big country.  And I know that there was a place for you within it, somewhere.  I know that peace existed for you somewhere outside the confines of the town and the church that you were raised in.  And I wish you would have given yourself time to find it.  I wish I had done my part in helping you get there.

On Saturday, I will join your family in carrying you to your final resting place.  It wasn’t my choice nor was it my responsibility to carry you to term, like Holly did.  It wasn’t my responsibility to bear the burden of raising you, as Randy and Laura did.  Much like you, I chose the path of least resistance.  And now the only weight I will be helping to carry will be that of your casket.  The weight of the choices I have made.  The weight of the pain you endured during your short time on this earth.  It’s not enough, and it’s much too late.  And for that I’m so, so sorry.

Dadblog #1

This summer has given me the opportunity to stay home with Simon at the perfect time in his development – he’s 4 months old and really starting to develop a personality with the added bonus being that he’s incapable of deliberately being an asshole yet.

It’s been absurdly good – the things that I feared most about parenthood are the things I’m enjoying the most. I was terrified of not having general freedom of movement or the opportunity to travel, but I’ve found that shrinking the confines of my world down to this house and this neighborhood have been really good for me.  I’ve done a ton of house projects, I’ve brewed a bunch of beer (and it’s been good!), and I’ve relished the occcasional opportunity to take a break from the kiddo and walk around the neighborhood during these lovely summer nights – something I wouldn’t have appreciated as much before.

Anyways, things are good and I have the pictures to prove it.

We take walks from time to time


We go to the brew shop to look for tasty grains
We try to eat pizza and he definitely gets sauce on his head

Ok sometimes we cry

​But naps are the best

Never mind bath time is way better

But really it’s all about the snuggles.