Parents truck in madness like some people truck in dry goods. One day you will ask your daughter to put on her bunny shoes. She will kick and scream with an intensity that is completely out of proportion with something like bunny shoes. She hates her bunny shoes. She wants to wear her pink Crocs instead. Crocs, you explain, have holes in them and it’s winter. Her toes will freeze and fall on the ground on the way to school. Your clumsy attempt at humor only enrages her more and now you’re late as she flails on the ground, kicking at the dog who has come over to investigate. When you finally relent and tell her just to wear the damn Crocs, convincing yourself that you’re not actually caving in but teaching her about choices, she’ll ask you, all sweets and sunshine, if she could wear the bunny shoes, please.
And you have to not turn into a crazy person in this situation.
If a stranger treated me the way my children sometimes treat me, I’d be in jail for street brawling. We re-arrange our entire lives around these little maniacs for no real reward. So why do we do it? There’s biological coding to pass our genes along but there is also something even deeper. Some of us believe that raising strong, independent and well-adjusted children is the most important thing a person can do. The meaning I attach to fatherhood is the only thing that keeps those bunny shoes from being burned in a bonfire of old art projects in my living room while I dance around in my underwear cackling like the Joker.
I recently re-read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl (you had me at meaning). It meant a lot to me in college when I first read it but I’ve found so much more to take away from it now that I’m (in theory) an actual adult. It’s one of those books where each time I read it, a passage that previously passed me by without notice like a jungle cat prowling by on other business, will suddenly spring from the page and I won’t be able to extract its claws for the rest of that day.
On this last read through, this passage was particularly troubling (emphasis is mine):
“Man has suffered another loss in his more recent development…No instinct tells him what he has to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).”
That strikes me as true for life but also more specifically for being a parent. It’s easy to feel like you’re unraveling when you don’t even know what you’re doing it all for.
Someone always needs something. If it’s not to change a light bulb, it’s something urgent and already late that I received in the mail from an organization who hasn’t bought into the whole electronic mail thing. When it’s not a leaky faucet, it’s the stack of books I’m going to get to just as soon as things quiet down. When it’s not a presentation for some meeting at work, it’s another god damned cup of milk that will inevitably wind up getting spilled and no one will do anything to stop it. It will dribble off the counter and on to my black dog who will stand there like an idiot because he remains ever vigilant for a stray chicken nugget even though his food is more expensive than mine and it will pool on the floor where I’ll slip on it in 15 minutes because cleaning up after yourself is as difficult a concept to a child as singularity.
The real beauty of Frankl’s work is that shortly after describing the horrors he endured at various concentration camps, he argues that even suffering has meaning, perhaps especially so. If this man can find meaning in the hardships of his life, finding meaning in the general slog of a working parent’s day seems a lot more achievable.
Sometimes though, you need to step away from it all in order to find that meaning. When I look back at this year, those moments of stepping away came by the ocean.
“We all came from the sea. And it is an interesting biological fact that all of us have, in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it we are going back from whence we came.” -JFK
I take my children on a yearly trip to pay homage to our origins. I mean that biologically as JFK did but also personally. The shore serves for me as a place of stability that always slows my mind down. One does not question the ocean about meaning. One just listens. No matter what was going on throughout my life, the ocean has been waiting. The ocean, and with it, skeeball.
“What’s so great about skeeball?” my children had the audacity to ask me one visit.
Like the ocean, “Skeeball is in your blood.”
I played skeeball on the same exact machines my children were about to play on. They were one thousand years old when I played on them and they will still be there in all their glory in another couple thousand years. The Jersey shore in particular is defined by skeeball and I’m not talking about the shore of the bros on that stupid ass show that set us back a couple of decades.
I thought about describing the sound the balls make as they slam into the waiting area; the rapid fire cloch-cloch-cloch! The balls are smoothed from millions of rolls, like sea glass gifted from a century in the ocean. They’ve been gripped by hands of every color and shape. The machines never quite process your money properly. 50c can either buy you 10 games or vanish into the ether. I considered telling them about the victorious melody of landing a 50K or the strategic folly of trying for a 100K and yet trying anyway.
While playing, a friend mentioned that the boardwalk always smells the same. That’s the smell of skeeball. Never changing, never old, never new. Like the David.
Instead of all that, I told my kids, “you can get tickets to trade in for plastic junk.”
That sold them.
I watched my son cheer at the tickets he was getting (for useless crap) and my daughter not quite getting the mechanics of the game. She threw the balls overhand and sometimes backwards, nearly taking out a family.
“Skeeball.” I shrugged and apologized. No other explanation should be necessary.
Through them, I see myself as a boy excited for the same useless crap, being given a momentary reprieve from the nonsense of the rest of his life. I’m older with my friends, back at the same games, trying to pretend we’re too cool to be having as much fun as we’re having. I’m there with my wife before we decided to break our minds by welcoming these gremlins into our lives.
It’s there that I realize that the meaning of that moment was not something that was given to me but instead something that I gave.
In a similar fashion, Frankl wrote,
“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action in and right conduct.”
How are you answering life? My problem is that I’ve spent the better part of my life answering someone else’s questions. Ironically, it’s my kids that break me out of that rut. Being a role model of living a good life is just too damn important to get wrong, delegate to someone else or approach meekly. A strong family, a safe home and a good life built on service are things not endured but forged.
To that end, it’s up to my wife and me to forge our family’s traditions. One of these is going to see the sunrise one morning each time we’re at the shore. On vacation, actually planning to be awake before the sun is up seems a blasphemous prospect, does it not? We have to wake up our children (also blasphemous). Yet each year we show up on the sand, waiting for Helios to grace the horizon. At some point, our children and dog grow bored and run off into the surf.
“Don’t get your pajamas wet,” one of us will call after them, but our hearts aren’t in it. They are drawn like a grizzly to honey, driven genetically by their prime directive to find a way to make the maximum possible mess out of themselves in any situation. They get wet and sandy and it’s going to be a pain later but for a brief moment in our lives, that’s ok.
My dog has found a half-eaten crab dropped by a seagull and he’s pondering the best way to swallow it. He turns his head from side to side in that way that dogs do, as if the problem will present itself differently if viewed from a different angle. Maybe it will. Dogs know things. I keep getting up to take it away from him and he keeps managing to find it again.
In between, my wife and I sit with our coffees. It’s cold in the morning but not too cold. We don’t need to say anything and can simply enjoy other’s company. There are no items to check off, no drop offs to plan. It’s just us and this crazy little band of misfits we’ve put together. No one told us to do it. No book described how to do it. We just did it. And there is nothing that will ever give me more pride. Our children and dog are being loud around us but not as loud as the ocean and certainly not as loud as the early morning quiet.
“Look at this shell!” one of them will say, for the 3 millionth time that week. This latest one looks like a mustache and they demonstrate by putting it on their upper lips. They laugh. We all laugh.
Suddenly an impossibly bright red sliver of light crests the horizon. I notice it first and point it out to everyone else. My children cheer and we all stop to look. Our dog barks, confused and trying to decide if he can eat it. He’s now covered in sand and seeing us distracted, goes back for another go at the crab. The three of them eventually grow tired of watching the sun and they’re off again and my wife and I sit there, watching the sunrise, basking in the grandness but also smallness of the moment.
There is nothing in life like watching the sun come up over the ocean with those most dear to you close at hand. Nothing.
Frankl teaches us that life asks us what our meaning is, not the other way around.
“A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire.”
In that moment, Frankl’s words ring true and nothing is truer. It’s true always but sometimes you need a sunrise to remind you. I spend my whole year questioning life but sometimes, with these people I’ve made a home with, I’m finding ways to get better at answering.
One final note from Frankl:
“Live as if you were living already for the second time and as if you had acted the first time as wrongly as you are about to act now!”
See you out there, trying to get it right the first time.
Thanks for reading.