ON CHRISTMAS DAY, I did something I haven’t done in years: I binge-read. I read like crazy. I read like some hopeless, awkward, teenage book nerd with a skin condition. It was pure literary indulgence. I was wearing sweatpants and everything. In my defense, they were very nice sweatpants—startlingly expensive sweatpants. There was a can of Diet Dr. Pepper at my side. It was the middle of the afternoon and I hadn’t even put on shoes yet. My dog was nearby, snoring, occasionally twitching, dreaming about dog things. I was in a big comfortable chair in a rarely used den at my in-laws’ house in upstate New York. We’re talking way upstate. Vermont, basically.
I finished reading one book, and then I immediately picked up another one from my pile. I considered taking a break and checking in with my wife and children. This, unfortunately, would have required getting up, so, instead, I held my breath and listened. I could hear cartoons and muffled voices. In my experience, you can always hear New Yorkers, even if you don’t know exactly what they’re talking about. I heard some R2D2 beeps and whistles from a handheld video game my nephew had gotten that morning. My daughters were tending to new My Little Ponies somewhere. They were with their mother, I assumed. I hoped. All was well. Everything was fine. No one was looking for me. I kept reading.
The book I’d picked up and begun devouring was Truth in Advertising by John Kenney. It’s a book that a bunch of people have told me that I “just have to read,” and, they were right. I quickly found myself a hundred pages in. I was enjoying the book—it’s very funny—but I was keenly aware that it was also making me uncomfortable. As the title suggests, it’s a novel set in the world of advertising, a world I’ve been a part of for some time. I wondered if things were really that ridiculous. I bet it’s how teenage vampires feel when they read Twilight.
But the advertising stuff was just window dressing. The book is really about a man nearing middle age who’s dealing with the effects of a very bad father. This is a path I’ve worn in my own writing, and it’s a topic we’ve all read about and seen in movies.
Whenever I’m confronted with fictional bad fathers, I never think about my own father. My dad is a lovely, caring man who gives me car advice and helps me fertilize my lawn each spring. Bad fathers make me think about myself.
Like all parents, I get flashes of anger that I’m not proud of. But I’m not a violent guy. My parenting weakness, the thing I’m constantly fighting, can best be described as aloofness. As a fiction writer, I’m perpetually in some state of preoccupation. At any given moment, I’m suffering over people who don’t exist—who will never exist. What are these imaginary people doing? How are they going to get out of the imaginary jam I’ve put them in? What are they saying to each other? What is their motivation? At the end of some pretend period of time, will they be changed? Will they become better imaginary people? Clearly, if I weren’t a writer, this kind of thinking would land me in an institution, heavily medicated, doing arts and crafts.
Jesus. Am I a shitty father?
It…it kind of sounds like I’m a shitty father.
I said these things to myself as I read. And then I imagined my daughters, twenty years from now—lovely, accomplished, well-dressed, sharp-witted. They were in a restaurant bar somewhere, talking about me.
“I wish Dad had been more emotionally present during our formative years,” one of them says.
“No kidding,” says the other, chewing an olive from her third martini. “If he’d just been able to exist in the moment like a normal dad, I wouldn’t have this void that I keep trying to fill with alcohol and male attention. Should we get another drink?”
It was a chilling thought.
And then, as if to somehow prove my point, I discovered that my four-year-old, Caroline, was actually in the room with me. She must have wandered in while I was reading/psychoanalyzing myself. She was sitting on the floor, playing with one of her presents, a board game called Sum Swamp. Her hair was still wild from bed, and she was wearing Christmas pajamas. The irony here was not lost on me. I’d been so absorbed in brow-beating myself for being a bad parent that I didn’t even realize my child was five feet away, sitting quietly by herself for God only knows how long.
I watched her roll three dice and move a small frog around a colorful board. It’s a simple game. Two of the dice have numbers, and the third has either a plus or a minus sign. So, every time you roll, you have a math problem. You solve that problem and then move whatever number of spaces. Honestly, I would have preferred something—anything really—that didn’t involve math. But I was desperate, and this seemed like an opportunity to do some fathering.
“Hey, honey,” I said. “Can I play with you?”
She smiled and said yes, so I sat down next to her and chose a snail figure. We played for a while. I helped her through a few problems. We were like actors in a Hasbro commercial, a father and his daughter playing a game on the floor, smiling, learning math.
Things quickly took a dark turn though when Caroline landed on a square with the number four on it. When you land on a numbered square, you have to roll the plus/minus die again and deal with the consequences. When she did this, the minus sign turned up.
“Uh-oh,” I said. “You have to move back four spaces.”
She chose to ignore this and move her frog forward four spaces.
“No, Caroline. You got a minus. That means you move backwards.”
“That’s not a minus,” she said.
“Yes it is.”
“No, honey…it’s not.”
This went on for longer than I’d like to admit. Some advice for non-parents: trying to reason with a four-year-old is a bad strategy. You might as well march out into the wilderness and try reasoning with the first wild animal you see.
I picked up the die. “This is a plus sign, and this is a minus sign. See? Minus means you take away. You go backwards.”
One of the frightening things about children, particularly girl children, I’ve found, is how suddenly their moods can change. This sweet little thing who had seconds before been making frog noises and laughing, threw all three dice across the board and told me that I wasn’t her friend anymore, that she was never playing a game with me ever again as long as she lived forever, and that I was not invited to her next birthday party.
As she stepped on the poor dog’s tail and stormed out of the room, I thought about her and her sister again, complaining about me in that futuristic restaurant bar. I’d be hunched over and world-weary by then, a shell of my former self. “Well, girls,” I’d say. “I gave it a shot, right?”
And then I went back to reading.