Earlier this month, I spent a Saturday in bed with a fever, an aching body and a queasy stomach, watching soccer and sitcom reruns on basic cable. I felt better the next day, but not before I passed it on to the rest of my family. One by one, they went down throughout the next week, each getting progressively more sick. First, Sadie had a fever for two days, and then Carter missed a whole week of school. Debbie got it so bad it turned out to be full-blown strep throat. My penance for slipping by relatively unscathed was missing two days of work myself to stay home and take care of the rest of them, running up and down the stairs to dole out Tylenol and Gatorade.
The payback hit its peak on the following Thursday night. Debbie was spending her second night unable to get out of bed, and I was trying to put both kids to bed at the same time. Sadie was feeling better by then, but unfortunately couldn’t shake her most troublesome symptom of being three years old. Carter was still running a fever, and both of them were in a contest to see who could be the neediest.
It was extremely windy outside, and the aging power lines in our neighborhood couldn’t handle it. Slowly, the lights in each room flickered, dimming lower each time until finally, a transformer at the end of the block blew and the house went black. The crying started in earnest, and my night had just begun.
Parenting is a grind. I know that’s not revealing any great secret, because anybody can tell you how hard it is. But you don’t really accept that until you’re staggering through the steady, day-after-day work of it. Getting dressed in the morning. Walking the dog. Breakfast. Packing lunches for school. The drop-offs. The pick-ups. Walking the dog again. The dinner and the homework and the baths. The bedtime stories interrupted when your seven-year-old has an urgent question about how to calculate a week into dog years. Meanwhile, you’re doing all of this while you and your spouse both work full-time and do all the other things to keep a household running. It’s death by a thousand sippy cups.
All of this makes some mighty good excuse-making when you also fancy yourself as a writer. I look at this website and see that I haven’t written anything new in months, and my best explanation is to shrug and say, “I have kids.” And really, there’s not much more to it than that. But underneath that very valid reason is the creeping feeling that it’s also a cop out, a persistent reminder that I’m not really as committed to this writing thing as I make myself out to be.
I went to the South By Southwest Interactive conference in Austin, Texas the weekend after we were all sick. Now that I have a job in social media it was technically for work, but I’d been looking forward to it as a much-needed break for myself. This was my third trip to SXSW, and while I spent most of the time at panels related to my job, I knew from past conferences that I should take a break and pick out a few just for fun.
On the second-to-last day of the conference, I attended a panel on personal storytelling hosted by Kahlil Ashanti, an actor and comedian, and Michael Margolis, an entrepreneur and writer. Their main idea was that since we’re constantly sharing our lives online anyway, we need to learn how to tell our personal story in a more compelling way by writing about what matters to us the most.
This panel touched a nerve with me, especially since I’ve been floundering with my personal writing here. Besides making excuses about not having enough time, I worry that my schtick has worn thin. At a certain point, most parents realize that nobody wants to see every single snapshot of their kids, or hear every story about how they mispronounce “movie” as “moobie.” So why would anyone want to read my 1,000-word essays about buying my son a baseball glove?
I think about this a lot, and I’ve considered starting a new site to write about something else like sports or politics or books. But it never feels right, mostly because it’s not what I care about the most. In the storytelling panel, Kahlil called this the Give a Shit Factor. “If you’re telling us something and it doesn’t mean the world to you, we’re not going to care,” he said.
I don’t write about my family because I want to share our story, the way you might want to share your opinions on baseball or politics. I write about my life because I’m trying to figure it out for myself. That’s not to say I don’t ever want to write about other things, but even we I do write about something like my childhood idol or a murder that happened in my hometown, the story is partly about me too. I take what little time I have left at the end of each day to scribble something down and hope it helps me understand my world a little better. Without that personal element, I’m wasting my time, and I’m probably wasting yours too.
When I get this way, thinking about how hard it is to manage all this, I always come back to what David Foster Wallace said in his commencement speech at Kenyon College in 2005 (known as the “This is Water” speech):
The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.
The week after I got back from SXSW, I started to feel sick again. I soon found out that I had strep throat too, the real payback for getting everyone else sick the first time. I missed another day of work and felt positively awful until the antibiotics kicked in. I was probably more of a baby about it than I want to admit, but Debbie took care of me just like I took care of her and the kids before my trip. But what else would we be doing? The alternative Wallace described, that unconscious fear that comes with belonging nowhere and being needed by no one, is just too frightening. We have no choice but to grind it out, day after day, and in the process understand ourselves just a little bit more.