The Grind

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.

Flux

flux.jpg

I.

To think, a mere two weeks ago I was happily adjusting to a new/old routine, reviewing the proper cleaning and field assembly of a Dr. Brown’s bottle like an infantryman with his rifle, and relearning the subtle difference in pitch between the “I’m hungry” screech and the “I’m dirty” wail. It was a comforting return to the days when all problems had a tangible solution–a little formula here, a little wipe there–instead of the Alice in Wonderland insanity of dealing with a manic-depressive schizophrenic, otherwise known as a normal three-and-a-half-year-old.

I should know by now from these last three years that nothing ever goes as planned, and that the Sadie Revolution wouldn’t go as expected either. Now that things have calmed down after her arrival, I had intended to spend the first few weeks knocking off various chores and projects shoved onto the back burner during all the excitement. But Carter managed to pick up a stomach bug along the way, which, long story short, ended up with me cleaning up copious amounts of vomit from his bed Monday night. I should also know better, especially after reading Steven Johnson’s The Ghost Map, an account of the 1854 cholera epidemic in London that sparked our modern understanding of how disease spreads, that by doing so, I had doomed myself to the same fate.

The bug laid in wait until the next night, multiplying its strength like a hurricane bearing down on a poor Gulf Coast community. Then, as I watched Simon Baker hustling his wiles on the premiere of “The Mentalist” on CBS, I said, “Boy, that lasagna isn’t going down well.” I’ll spare the gory details, but imagine taking a water balloon and squeezing it in the middle until it bursts at both ends. That was my body, suffering from a list of symptoms that makes one of those TV drug ad disclaimers seem concise. Forget routines, I could barely lift my cramping, nauseated body out of bed to wring itself out again and again, let alone care for anyone else. Once again, my best laid plans had ended up down the rabbit hole.

II.

It’s fitting that the same week my insides liquefied, the economy did the same. The similarities between the onset of my stomach flu and the impending collapse of the US financial system were uncanny: the initial shock and sudden upheaval, followed by wave after wave of bad news, followed by persistent nausea and dread.

Fortunately, I had a responsible adult around to take care of me. Debbie was downright heroic that first night, waking up with the baby, plying me with Gatorade and Tylenol, and getting up the next day to walk the dog and see Carter off to school. I couldn’t have asked any more of her; quick, decisive action borne out of love and an understanding of responsibility.

As I laid in bed the next day watching hours of cable news against my better judgment, I expected to see some adults taking the same kind of responsibility for the economy. But instead I watched House Republicans short-circuit the bailout deal to uphold their conservative ideological views, a scared, lame-duck president who could do nothing to convince them otherwise, and a presidential candidate playing reckless politics with a cheap stunt that left even the most seasoned Washington observers slack-jawed with disbelief. The queasiness from my stomach flu was simply amplified by watching such self-serving bungling.

III.

We use the word “flux” to describe situations that are changing. “The economy is in a state of flux,” one might say, generously. Ironically, the word flux used to describe the particularly gruesome symptoms of dysentery. In Alex Haley’s Roots, the “bloody flux” strikes the slave ship carrying Kunta Kinte to America, spreading to slaves and captors alike so viciously that one of the sailors has to man the ship while standing in a tub to catch his own mess.

My life has been in flux lately, though thankfully in the more modern sense of “continuous change.” Carter started full-time preschool. We had a new baby. I’m starting graduate school again in a week. And now my family’s livelihood in the real estate industry is threatened by collapsing credit markets. After last week, that word flux may be taking on more of its original connotation again.

IV.

Last Thursday morning, two days after I got sick, we feared Debbie had caught the bug too. She hustled up to bed, leaving me to perform the same single-handed family orchestration that she had the day before. As it turned out, she never reached the toilet-abusing depths that I did, but Carter didn’t know this when he headed off to school that morning.

On our walk to school, he started complaining that his toe hurt. He wanted me to carry him. It’s an old trick of his, and I said no. He persisted, and I became more frustrated. “What, do you want to just turn around and go back home?” I finally said.

“Yes!” he wailed, and burst into tears. I managed to calm him down and get him to class, but he broke down two more times on the way. Once at school, I finally understood the problem. “Are you worried about Mommy?” I said.

The waterworks started again, this time sobbing into my shoulder when I picked him up. “When’s Mommy going to feel better?” he said.

I’d forgotten that Carter’s life has been in flux too, even more so than mine. A new sister, a new school, a new routine, and now two days in a row, he had seen both of his parents fall ill and retreat to bed. He was afraid all the responsible adults were abandoning him too.