Tag Archives: parenthood

Little house of men

MY FATHER MADE it clear to me that I was mechanically inept. “Sometimes it skips a generation,” was the phrase, and we believe what we’re told by people we believe love us. He had it, I didn’t, and because it had skipped me, I never would.

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ALL THE QUOTES are from Pastime, a 1991 Spenser novel.

“Remember,” I said, “there were no women. Just my father, my uncles, and me. So all the chores were done by men. There was no woman’s work. There were no rules about what was woman’s work. In our house all work was man’s work. So I made beds and dusted and did laundry, and so did my father, and my uncles. And they took turns cooking.”

The first thing I bought to improve my kitchen was a serving spoon. I was working at Scholastic Books in Manhattan, and across from it was Dean and DeLuca, a very expensive gourmet shop where sometimes, to make myself feel better, I’d drop several dollars more on a treat than something only a scant degree less enjoyable would have cost at Cafe Duke.

They had utensils there, too, not just tony takeout. I thought about it and bought this big, pretty, satin-finish serving spoon.

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THEN, BECAUSE I was reading Consider the Fork, and she swore by tongs, a pair of those, also from Dean and DeLuca; and thanks to a minor casino windfall of my wife’s, a rice cooker from Mitsuwa Marketplace—the largest Japanese grocery store in the US, which I’d sometimes stop into after riding my bike into New Jersey, to pack my single pannier with sake for me and mochi or candy for my family. Then the Microplane Zester/Grater—I think that was also from Consider the Fork—and I don’t remember the order of acquisitions after that. A thing here, a thing there. All haphazard, probably, from the outside, but tightly integrated to the emerging pattern in here. A pretty serving spoon was only needed if I was going to take food seriously enough to want to present it; we already had black nylon cooking spoons, which we used for both stirring and serving. This would not be used for stirring. Tongs were only necessary if I wanted to risk, on the say-so of a book, money on a utensil I’d never felt the lack of, but which an expert called her most valuable. And a rice cooker is a long-term decision about nutrition, expense, and self-reliance…and I have this Kurusawa/Mifune thing. The ronin in The Seven Samurai—as determined, scarred, and self-reliant as any knight-errant gumshoe—accept rice as payment.

Separated by weeks and freelance checks came: a good garlic press, a balloon whisk despite already having a spiral one, a small mortar and pestle, two nice big white serving bowls from Sur La Table, nested, even though mixing bowls had been serving the same purpose just fine. Each item requiring a second or third thought, and usually a second or third visit, before the purchase.

 

“So all of you cooked?”

“Yeah, but no one was proprietary about it. It wasn’t anyone’s accomplishment, it was a way to get food in the proper condition to eat.”

 

MY MARRIAGE ENDED, after a quarter-century, in July, 2014. She moved first, to the county in Connecticut we’d agreed on so the boys could have good schools and I could have train access to Scholastic. By the time the moving started, Scholastic had given all my work to a much larger vendor that could offer bulk pricing. No time to react. Two weeks later, I landed in the same county, different town.

I got the old raw-wood Ikea utility table. On our first weekend together, I had the boys sand and stain it with me, and it moved into our new kitchen as our new prep table. It fit perfectly. We didn’t have anywhere to eat yet, or even a wastebasket, but I knew what kind of little family of men I wanted.

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THEY TURNED TEN soon after we moved. Now they’re eleven.

I called them to the top of the stairs to their room this evening, and said to the one who’s only intermittently interested in cooking, “There are two things I need done, and you can choose which. One, you can wash some dishes and set the table. Two, I need the chain taken off my folding bike, which is in the bike garage on the workstand, and put to soak in cleaner.”

“CHAIN!”

His brother’s dream is to be on MasterChef Junior; I’ve been working with him on cooking since we moved here. This boy’s equivalent started four days ago, when he began his career as a mechanic by replacing the rear dérailleur and shifter cable on a little secondhand mountain bike his mom bought to keep at her place. His career will probably not be as a mechanic; he wants to be a scientist. I will probably never be able to send him to college, but I was struck, long ago, by Richard Feynman’s stories of being “The Boy Who Fixes Radios By Thinking,” and I can at least give him a tactile understanding of basic physics. The classical simple machines are lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge, and screw. Bicycles are compound collections of four out of six, and the other two (wedge, inclined plane) are integral to fixing and riding them.

And not just of basic physics, but of applied physics; felt physics. Reading about springs and being able to repeat that they store energy is not the same as getting your finger pinched when a dérailleur snaps back on its hanger. The abstraction of reading says the physical world is readily understood and easily manipulated. The orneriness of reality teaches you that perseverance and endurance are the only things that really ever manipulate it.

The bike garage is the only room in the house where he’s allowed to swear.

I’ve struggled with dérailleur adjustment for two years, since I bought my first workstand and bike tool set during the same life epoch that pushed me to buy the serving spoon. Lightly guiding my budding mechanic through his own first repair blew away the last of the obstacles. I now get it. Last night after seeing my boys at a school concert and then leaving them and driving half an hour home by myself, I needed to make myself feel better, so I shouldered my randonneuring bike down the basement stairs and tuned up its winter-beaten drivetrain. I didn’t refer to any of my previous printouts from the web. It just makes sense.

It made sense to mechanical boy in a single day. Mostly I just tightened things his hands were too small for, made him stop when he jumped to the wrong conclusions, and told him not to hit himself in the face with the cable.

I also had him touch the cable near the shifter while turning the grip, to feel what’s going on up there, and then had him do it again while watching the dérailleur. His light bulbs went off so much faster than mine ever have. He’s got that thing I don’t.

 

“Your father sounds as if he were comfortable with his ego,” Susan said.

“He never felt the need to compete with me,” I said. “He was always very willing for me to grow up.”

 

SO I HAVE my fantasy house, my little family of men. I yell at them sometimes, which Spenser’s fictitious father and uncles never did, and feel unforgivably shitty and apologize. I’m trying to be an ideal, and that’s something nobody can maintain outside the hermetic chamber of a book. But even an unattainable ideal lies in a direction, and if we don’t aim for it, we don’t travel in that direction, and can’t get reshaped by the effort.

We’re still jerks sometimes, all three of us, including the one who’s not eleven, but I think we’re teaching each other how to be better men, one generation to the next.

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IT WAS A very simple dinner tonight because of work and being tired and not-recovered-yet broke, and as a pan heated, I went downstairs, plausibly to make sure the mechanic knew where the Chain Brite was before he got started, but really to see about fingers not being pinched, and he was already done. The chain and master link were soaking in the yellow Domino Sugar tub. So I agreed that yes, it is very fun and he should totally do more of this kind of thing, and went back up to the kitchen and his brother said, “Can I butterfly these sausages for you, Dad?”

I know how I got here. I don’t want to sound disingenuous. It was intentional.

This is just a night when I had that moment, and am amazed.

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Acceptance

LAST AUGUST 1, I moved from an apartment in New York City where I lived with my wife and kids to a duplex in Connecticut where I live alone half the time and with my kids half the time. At that same moment, unrelated, I lost about 80% of my income.

So there’s been a lot of stuff to take care of. A lot of it, I didn’t know I’d have to take care of, but I’m the only grownup here, so care of has been taken. Or anyway, mostly taken. I now have my own floor steamer. I have an oil heater. I have a big cheery orange stock pot, a dining nook, a scratched car with a lease I shouldn’t have signed, two Freecycle window boxes of geraniums that face the wrong way on the porch because I don’t care if you can see them, hooks in the kitchen for three bike helmets and a tarp over two little bikes outside, a slow cooker, a roasting pan, a half-sanded Goodwill dresser for my bike clothes, a tiny Japanese clothes washer in my bathroom (with lint catchers and mesh laundry bags and a collection of detergents and stain removers in the cabinet above it, and we, the Snyder boys, who are a family, have a system), and a task grid called SCHOOL MORNINGS AT DAD’S hanging on a clipboard where we can all see it at breakfast. I have sleep deprivation and less hair, I have maybe 40% of my income back, and I usually have yellow flowers in Mason jars or whisky bottles by the kitchen windows.

I threw away all the salad forks. They are not missed. I gave away the microwave oven. It’s not missed either; Snyder boys cook. I got rid of all but the three bowls I thought we’d ever need at one time. That was less smart than the salad forks and the microwave.

I have regrets, deep exhaustion, a body that’s rarely ridden farther than the grocery store since the double-century 18 months ago, a roll-top desk half turned into a charging station, and not a stack, but an occasional discovery of papers from school that I haven’t read. And my floors are better than they were before I bought the steamer, but you don’t step in here and go Wow, this man’s quite the housekeeper!

My kitchen is clean when I need that symbolism more than I need to get somebody’s book designed, or when the boys show up and I want them to think I clean things all the time. It was cleaner during the first six months, when there was less paying work and more need to feel I was taking care of things.

I do take care of things. Not all the things. There sure are a lot of things.

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ONE HALF-THING I took care of as I stumbled out one door and into another was I paid all the contributors to RIDE 3. I knew I was going to lose my grip on getting it edited, designed, and published, though I didn’t know for how long, and I didn’t want the weight of not paying people pressing down along with the weight of not having it done yet.

Blog entries, the good ones, are from impulse and urgency. There was one every couple of months. As real writing time came back, in tiny spans, I spent it half-assing the writing that meant the most to me, which was novel #5. It’s been a 14-year gap since novel #4. Then I’d quarter-ass my RIDE 3 story, which not only has a couple of plot things still left to solve, but is in iambic pentameter and has to rhyme.

Then the book will need designing, all the stories need typesetting, the POD has to be set up, the ebook versions have to be made, everything needs uploading, I have to figure out who to send it to for reviews and put together some sort of promo thing and blog it…

Too much.

The contributors checked in every so often. I wrote back and said I’m doing my best, but it’s going to be a while. And I was doing my best. Eighth-assed was my best.

They were nice.

Except one.

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FROM ELDEN NELSON, Fatcyclist:

Click it to read the rest. It's just mean.

Click it to read the rest. It’s just mean.

Yeah, I know it’s been two days since he called me out. I’ve been busy.

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SO two things:

One, I hate when people say I have nothing to apologize for instead of accepting my apology. So—Elden, you’ve got nothing to apologize for, and I accept it anyway.

Two, you’re on.

Four, RIDE 3 will be up at Amazon by December 1, in time for holiday gift-giving that doesn’t just mean “Christmas gift-giving.”

Five, it’ll have my story, The Rambler, in it–either Part 2 of a sufficient length to be clearly not a cheat (Part 1 was in RIDE 2), or the whole thing.

Six, wait til you see these stories…

Seven, okay that was nine things.

Anyone who doesn’t make his deadline has to…donate Some Amount To Be Determined to a charity of the other’s choosing, as well as write a ballad praising the other’s bike prowess and calf and/or butt definition.

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IF I DARE? Oh, I dare. Because I know the secret.

Some people think art comes from inspiration.

Some people think it comes from hard work.

But you and I know. True art comes from abject terror of public shaming.

You got six days…tick tock…

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One second before the change

I PICKED HIM UP after karate. We have “one-boy nights,” but they got disrupted this month, and I’ve seen my children for about an hour over the last nine days. I don’t usually miss them when they’re not here; I’m just sad to see them go and happy to see them come back. (“Yeah! Me too!” he exclaimed on the drive home.) But this time I’ve missed them since they went to Mom’s.

His brother has started puberty. He turned his back and walked away from me three times after karate class, while I thought we were still engaged. He came back and gave me a hug when I called him, because he’s still a sweet boy, too, but it’s started.

But the other one…not yet.

“What should we do tonight?” we asked each other on the way home. “Do you have work?” he asked. “I hope you’re done with everything and you don’t have to work.”

“I’m not done with everything,” I said, “but I don’t have to work.” But then we couldn’t think of what to do. Sometimes we like fixing things together, but there’s not really anything to fix. Plus I’m very tired. It’s been an emotionally rough week, and today was jammed from 7am, when my alarm went off and I drove to their mom’s town to see them off at their first day of middle school, until I drove there again to pick him up after karate. I’m a month overdue for a haircut, and people who are supposed to be paying me aren’t paying me.

(They’ll pay me. They’re just not doing it when they’re supposed to.)

It’s the kind of tired where you look in the mirror and see what the karate teachers saw: You missed patches of whiskers when you shaved.

“I kind of feel like…” he said. “I dunno…just hanging out and watching a movie.”

“You know, me too. What movie.”

“I don’t know.”

“Me neither.”

We thought hard. The car was filled with the sound of our silent brains.

“I know!” he said twenty minutes later. “I want to watch Yojimbo.”

“But we just watched that recently.”

Yojimbo?”

“Yeah. Didn’t we?”

“Well, a while ago… But we watched Throne of Blood. That was July 4.”

“July 4 was Throne of Blood?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh,” I said. It was? “But we’ve seen Yojimbo twice now, right?”

“Yeah, twice.”

“Yeah…I don’t want to see it again yet. How about Sanjuro? The sequel. It’s the same character without a name.”

So he looked doubtful and then approving, and then we rejected one dinner idea after another, and neither of us wanted to cook. We ended up getting cold roast beef and warm mashed potatoes at the grocery store, and some Ramune and mochi because they accessorized the movie.

I have done so many things wrong, as a parent, and I don’t even know what they are yet. His brother’s got a foot cocked out the door of adolescence. I’m juggling bills and learning a kind of hustle at 49 that I never got together in my 30s. Autumn’s coming. But for probably the final summer, my boy still wants to watch Sanjuro with me.

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HE LEFT HIS stuffed sheep at Mom’s.

“You said that was OK and you were going to use a pillow.”

He can’t really sleep without the sheep.

“I know,” he said. He was on his mattress, which I haul down the stairs to my room every time he’s here without his brother. “But…”

“Do you have any stuffed animals here at all?”

“No.”

“Well you need something. What are we going to–oh, I know,” I said.

I still have my stuffed animals from when I was little.

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“SCOOT,” I ORDERED, and lay on my back next to him. “This would be a lot better if there were stars up there, and we were lying in a meadow or something.”

We both looked at the dark ceiling.

“There’s something I want from you,” I said.

“What?”

“I know you guys are brothers, and that means you bug each other. He’s gonna do that hiss thing, and you’re gonna give him the squinty-eye face, and that’s just how it is. But I want something from you. If you see people joining up and going against him, you go join together with him. I know we all pick on each other sometimes, but if someone picks on one of us, we pull together.”

“OK.”

“And if you forget and you don’t join together with him, then when you remember, just go do it.”

“OK.”

“We stick together.”

We looked at the ceiling. That had all seemed a little macho and a bit earnest.

“And then when they’re gone, we can pick on each other again,” I said.

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THE WE-STICK-TOGETHER conversation went into some stuff about his brother’s new behavior, and I said something about the need to self-define and detach that comes with adolescence, and how it takes a while to get used to those feelings and handle them well.

“You’ll see when it gets here for you.”

“How do we know it’s not already here for me?”

I didn’t talk for a bit. “That’s an excellent question.” (I know very well it’s not here for him yet.) “You’re certainly more mature…”

“I am?”

“Oh, yeah.”

“But I’m a goofball!”

“I’m a goofball too, but I’m quite mature. And I’m forty-nine.”

“Mature? YOU?”

Some humor has to be decided in a sliver of a second. “Shut up!” I said.

He grinned and chuckled.

Not hurt by the shut up. Just pleased to be a trusted peer.

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It’s been a rough week, and I know I’m already emotional.

But oh, my boys. My little boys. They’re almost gone.

Come back and let me do it right.

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