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.

Sunday Mornings

This piece originally appeared at The Millions

1.

My parents spent the weekend at my house recently, and besides the standard good feelings of spending time with the people who raised me, I’ve come to look forward to these visits because they are two able-bodied adults who can help watch my kids. Once the initial greetings are shared, bags unpacked, and meals cooked, their presence in the house offers the unusual chance to sneak away to check my email unmolested and go to the bathroom without being interrupted mid-stream by a door-pounding demand for apple juice.

Since my kids won’t be old enough to read this for a few more years, by which time they’ll probably hate me for other reasons, I’ll say this out loud: I sometimes fantasize about a life without them. Okay, I fantasize about that all the time, but the daydream is most vivid at those times when I know the childless people in my peer group are off doing the spontaneous, self-indulgent things you can do when two little bellies and attention spans aren’t dependent on your constant presence. I think about it on Friday nights, when instead of going to a concert or movie I’m chasing my naked two-year-old daughter down the hall after a bath so I can slap a diaper on her before she pees on the carpet. I think about it on Saturday afternoons, when instead of flipping channels between baseball games and movie reruns, I’m at the park spotting my five-year-old son on the monkey bars to avoid another trip to the emergency room for a broken wrist. And I think about it a lot on Sunday mornings, when instead of sleeping in and enjoying a leisurely breakfast while reading the Sunday paper, I’m mopping up spilled bowls of cereal and juggling remotes to find the right episode of Dora on Netflix.

During my parents’ latest visit, I thought I had my chance to pull off that lazy Sunday morning. My mom was helping my son finish his homework for school the next day. My dad was watching cartoons with my daughter on the couch, and I settled down to read the New York Times travel section on my iPad. I was halfway into an article about getting lost driving the back roads of Ireland when my daughter hopped off the couch and announced, “I sit Daddy’s lap.”

No one was going to stop her. It was cute, see. I should mention now that she was wearing nothing but a diaper–she had stripped off her PJs earlier during an Alvin and the Chipmunks dance party in her brother’s room–and carrying a bag of Corn Chex. I tried to prop the iPad on the arm of the chair and continue reading, which worked for a minute until I started looking at the slideshow that accompanied the article.

“Cow! I see cow!” she squealed when she saw a picture of a brown cow standing in a verdant Irish pasture overlooking the sea. “More cow pictures!” I tried to convince her that was the only cow picture in the series, but nothing else would do until I had pulled up a Google image search of every cow, bull, heifer, and steer you’d ever want to see. Soon we were watching YouTube videos of placid Swiss cattle with giant bells around their necks munching grass in the shadow of the Alps. Sunday morning fantasy: over.

2.

What bothers me more than these compromised moments of leisure is the feeling that my kids take up my time to write. In terms of hobbies, writing is a terrible choice, because it may be the only one that makes you feel guilty when you’re not doing it. I use my kids as my excuse, as in “I’d write at night after work, but by the time we’ve had dinner and get the kids to bed it’s 9:00 and I’m worn out,” or “I wish I could write on the weekends, but my wife works a lot and I’m always stuck with the kids.” It’s a convenient way to rationalize pure procrastination and the fear of, I don’t know, failure I guess.

At least parenting is a more responsible excuse than saying I pissed away my time playing video games or nursing debilitating hangovers, but it’s an excuse nonetheless. I know this every time one of those whiny thoughts pops into my head, but it never stops the rush of jealously I feel when a friend from my writing group says she spent the afternoon at a coffee shop working on an essay, or when I hear about people my age with the independence to strike out on freelance writing careers. Never mind that given all the free time in the world, I’d develop much more subtle, insidious ways to explain away my lack of production. I still feel a sense of injustice that they seemingly have all these opportunities to write and I don’t.

I’ve only been writing seriously for about eight years now, but I’ve already inherited the mantle of self-aggrandizing victimhood, that feeling of possessing a voice that must be heard but can’t because of the conspiring forces of short-sighted editors, unappreciative bosses, and family obligations. And since it involves my offspring, it’s countered with equal measures of guilt for feeling like I’m entitled to anything other than the satisfaction of raising two healthy, happy children.

3.

That Sunday afternoon we took the kids to a new park in our neighborhood. It takes up a whole block, crosshatched with diagonal walkways that separate a state-of-the-art playground, futuristic misting fountains, a dog park, and grassy mounds built from the dirt excavated to build the rest of the park. I was standing by the fence of the playground, nursing stale coffee from a travel mug, when I had to stop and chase down my daughter before she opened the gate and made a break for it. After I scooped her up, she saw a man sitting with a Great Dane on top of one of these mounds and said, “Cow!”

To her credit the dog was white with black spots, just like a Holstein cow, and half the size of one too. If we hadn’t spent a half hour that morning watching videos of cows, she wouldn’t have made the comparison. And if I had spent the morning scratching myself in a bathrobe instead, reading the news and watching Chris Berman bellow on ESPN, it would have passed unnoticed, indistinguishable from every other lazy Sunday morning. I might have looked past the picture of the cow, finished that article, and sat down at a computer to write something. But then if I spent my morning alone, what would I write about?

Restless Mind Syndrome

I’m absolutely convinced that I am the world’s most efficient and productive writer–that is, if I could do all my writing while lying bed, trying to go to sleep. In that 30 minutes to an hour between the time I set my book down or turn off the TV, I can compose pages upon pages of fabulous material: new ideas, blog posts, responses to particularly insightful or infuriating articles I read during the day, revisions. Some nights, if my mind is really going, this will keep me awake for hours.

When I started grad school, I used to say that I do most of my writing while walking around. That worked well when I had a full-time job, because I did spend a lot of time walking, to and from work, on lunch break, cruising around the office, trying to look busy. And when I finally sat down at a computer, I could always count on a few uninterrupted minutes to spill whatever brilliant sentences had formed in my brain. Now, 90 percent of what I compose in my head never reaches a word processor. If something dawns on me during the day, it’s quickly wiped from memory by the vapors from a dirty diaper or that incessant Go Diego Go theme song. If I dream up a new ending for The Sopranos while lying in bed, I might resolve to put it in the vault for the next day, but when I wake up, all I can think about is how badly I need to pee.

As an acolyte of David Allen and his Getting Things Done system for personal productivity, I know an easy solution to this problem. A main component of Allen’s system (I’d say the most crucial one) is what he calls “capture,” i.e. writing everything down. As soon as you think, “Hey, I should get this rash checked out,” write it down, so you can find this note later and turn it into a task like “Call Dr. Nick about VD.” To facilitate this, GTD nerds all over the web have come up with dozens of ingenious methods for making sure you always have a way to jot down reminders, from notebooks to PDAs to stacks of index cards. Lately, I’ve taken to writing things down on index cards too, which I toss into my inbox so I look at them at least once a day when I go through my mail and receipts. This works for things like “buy more milk” and “email Rob to say Carlos Zambrano sucks,” but not for dictating my next New Yorker submission. There’s only so much you can fit onto a 3 x 5 card.

I’ve tried other solutions, like keeping a full-sized notebook on the night stand or even getting out of bed to run downstairs to the computer. But the words never come out as beautifully as they appeared in my mind. If I try to condense it into a few notes on a piece of paper, something gets lost in translation. The next day I look at my scribbling and think, “What the hell?” If I run to the computer, something about the white glow of the screen in the dark gives me stage fright, and I’m never able to squeeze out much more than two sentences. Meanwhile, that perfect idea drifts away.

In Cory Doctorow’s novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, a story about Disney World Imagineers set well into the future, people (at least the wealthy ones with clean records) have a network interface built right into their brains. All one has to do to send an email, make a phone call, or access a database is think about it. Aside from the obvious slippery slope this would create for our always-on, gadget-addicted society, I like to dream about what this would do for my word count. If I could just lie in bed, letting my unconscious mind spill its thoughts into an ever-waiting text document, I’d crank out pages like Proust on crystal meth. My waking mind would become more of an editor, collating chapters and essays deposited on his desktop every morning by this mystery writer, who is either a vampire or lives in Japan (or perhaps, all the better, both).

So somebody get to work on that, and let me know when you’re finished. I remember a part in The Matrix about computers and brains too, if that helps. In the meantime, some tips about keeping a better notebook might be sufficient.