On Figuring

My dog keeps looking at me like I have all the answers, like I am about to do something incredible, and she’s going to be there for it.

On Figuring
Photo by kevin turcios / Unsplash

My dog keeps looking at me like I have all the answers, like I am about to do something incredible, and she’s going to be there for it. I’m eating apple slices. There’s no caramel, no peanut butter. I don’t even think I have salt. It’s just an apple, dog. Go lie down.

I remember coaching rugby practices and the team asking, “Hey coach, what’s next?” and I’d flip through my clipboard to find the perfect drill, but I’d have no idea. I couldn’t even read most of my handwritten notes. In the end, I would pick something legible and bark out instructions. It works if you follow everything up with “hustle, hustle!” Ball handling or fitness sprints or tackle drills, and they all have their place in the rotation. But there was never a Tuesday-is-leg-day strategy. An exception is if it was raining; rain days were always tackle drills. Tackling in the mud has a charm. I did not know what I was doing, but the team hung in there with me. We were all learning together and the team was forgiving.

Here’s a surprise: I, a writer, never had a coherent plan at any point in life. I bounced around, gathering random skills and bits of information. There were always the general rules to follow, you know: be kind. Share. Don’t get too proud. Breathe before answering. But for the other stuff, it all seemed illegible to me, just like my coaching notes. Make six figures. Be the boss. Enforce the laws. I simply did not have that overriding goal to win and be in charge. It was never attractive to me. Some call that ambition, right? Does ambition always have to equate with financial success? I was not afraid to work, but I found it challenging to pick one thing to work in for… forever? So I let myself be content making do with what we had. A bowl of ramen. Coffee on the porch. Saving up enough returnable beer bottles to score the free case. Spontaneous road trips. But life can come at you fast.

It feels like yesterday when the nurse handed me a newborn before kicking my wife and me out of the maternity ward. Thank you, bye. I still get chills remembering the fear as I stood dumbstruck holding a child, my child, realizing that the totality of her well-being depended on my wife and my ability to figure things out. This was a real-world event, not just a guy playing coach, faking machismo to make it work. You do not tell a baby to hustle. I did not know what to do. No one was standing at the door waiting to give us a book with all the answers. Any answers. Not even a pamphlet. I just held her tight while we agreed we’d figure it out. And we put the grandmothers on speed dial.

Not too many weeks after, still holding that child, we went to her first morning of daycare. My wife and I were walking zombies by then. We had to go back to work, so my baby was getting dropped off with strangers paid with money to do everything we were just figuring out. Professionals. It was difficult, leaving your kid to be professionally raised, to trust a stranger to take care of your child with as much love and attention as you would. It is tough knowing you will miss a lot of developmental milestones and enrichment with your kid. Someone else is getting all those applesauce smiles while you are away.

Once a kid is aware of the world, there are ten or so years when they look to you for everything. “What are we doing today?” “What’s for breakfast?” “What should I wear?” There is an expectation that parents have the answers. All of them. And the answers are amazing. You can fix anything. You know everything. You are the grounding center of their universe. It’s fun because, after a certain inflection point, you can definitely make stuff up. After all, the children have no way to fact-check you, nor do they ever doubt your supreme and benevolent wisdom.

Until they do. Or until they simply aren’t really interested in what you have to say. On a fall drive through the countryside, my daughter asked me, “why did people who live in rural areas always have Trump signs?” Nothing wrong with that question. About two minutes into my beneficial and well-thought-out response, she said, “OK, dad, I don’t need a lecture.” Lectures? You asked me! You know when you give that glare in the rearview mirror too long and almost sideswipe a cow just off of Country Road #9? Yeah, that was me. My bad, Bessie.

The other day I walked down to the park with my daughter, my little girl, growing up. As we walked, we held hands. At her age, I know fully that any of these walks will be the last time she wants daddy’s hand. For now, she likes me to hold her hand and walk to the park because that’s where the rope swing is. It is tied to a tree on the hill behind the concession stand. Stepping over the empty beer bottles behind the concessions, I am reminded that she will someday move on to other thrills beyond a rope swing. I held her hand so tight, then let her go to watch her jump off the hill, clutching that raggedy swing.

I can hear a baby across the street screaming and the mother shushing her child with rhymes and songs. Another parent and child, another person juggling work and kids and finances and in-laws. I know the planners out there may disagree, but sometimes unwieldy things get put before us. No plan is big enough to account for all the variables, the illnesses or tragedies, or economic forces well beyond our lines of sight and capacity to handle. We have to manage it. Sometimes, we are figuring out important stuff using inadequate resources and incomplete information. We have no plan. We are flipping through the best we can, picking our next step forward based on whatever is legible enough to read.

Time shrinks as we age. What was once the eternity of summer is now just the hot bit before fall, which bleeds into the holidays, then we hunker down during the bleak months. And one day, early as ever, my crocuses are up again, like old friends passing by for a visit. I do not have to be reminded to sit a moment and admire their beauty and be grateful for the joy they bring every year.

My father is eighty-two years old. He just returned from vacation. He enjoyed the scenery but was a little bored. Water walking in the morning, eating lunch at the hotel, naps, getting ready for dinner, eating dinner, watching TV, and going back to sleep. That routine is almost exactly like his days at home, the same stuff he usually does, just in a different place. He realized that one of his favorite parts of the trip was heading to Cracker Barrel. “I like the atmosphere,” he told me. He has all the stuff. He traveled, mentored, and taught. Now he is content to find a decent bowl of chicken dumplings. We talked about getting hobbies and picking out some unique experiences to aim for. He said, “I just want to see my kids.”

I can only hope that, as I made up life, I did so with kindness and patience towards those who looked up to me. Those kids will grow up to be individuals. Are they going to be our friends, those children? Will they want to be near us, share a minute for a chat, sit awhile over a meal at Cracker Barrel, where I assume one day I will want to have dumplings? Will they trust us as a source of advice or as a confidant? Or will we be reminders of failings, triggers of painful childhoods too challenging to face? Will our answers still seem like lectures? Will they not be lessons but judgments? Will they want to hold our hands?

The only tangible thing we can put our finger on is the present. Everything else is a memory or a wish, past or future. But our kids don’t know that. Even when they are older, they watch us, even if we are broken and did harm. I am not afraid to tell my kids that it’s OK not to know what lay ahead or that sometimes it is just as well to have a cup of tea and go to bed early. But that advice is for later when they are grown. For now, when my son tells me he is bored, I say, “Hello, Mr. Bored. Come sit with me.” When my daughter asks to go for a walk, I say, “Yes.” When my wife asks if I have a minute, I give her all of them. Even if they already have or soon will figure out my grand bluff, that I am taking it a page at a time, I hope they know I am enjoying the ride with them. And thankfully, at least the dog still thinks I have my act together.