My bulldog, whom I hold in higher regard than many of my contemporaries, looks as though he’s been living in a tire fire for the past six years. Dogs get skin infections, I now know, and dogs with wrinkles get them in horrible ways. What starts as a little spot we treat with ointments, slowly spreads – antibiotics get into the mix and then all sorts of medications start interacting with each other – culminating in a spread that resembles one of those pulled-back shots of the earth while some fiery detonation bleeds over everything. I’m embarrassingly attached to the animal – Carl is his name – six years old last month. I get irritable when we’re apart for too long and I dislike watching a movie without a warm fat bulldog in my lap – and after typing that out I wonder if I shouldn’t re-phrase. So this skin infection, it’s spread all over his back, across his shoulders and onto his chest a bit. It’s healing up pretty well now, all of three months later, and while it’s been stressful, I do still have a dog that looks like he’s made partially out of lasagna.
I’ve touched, cleaned and smelled every imaginable bodily fluid that a dog can produce. It’s gross, quite so, however I love this dog to such a frightening degree that I now consider myself a black-belt in gag reflex suppression. They say it’s the same way with kids, but children are disgusting little things – and stop penning that hate mail right now – I know they’re all little precious twinkles of starlight and you’ll never look at life the same way and it’s different when it’s your own kids blah blah stop it. I know at the core of it they’re right – the ones who say “You know, I don’t like kids either but it’s totally different with your own.” I know they’re probably right – or are convinced they are – and when I make sex at my wife and she later poops out a kid – awesome, great, you’re my whole, you know, world or whatever. I’ll be a father for six months and spend my day at the water cooler giving parenting advice like I know shit about shit – I get it. In the meantime, I occasionally have to wipe my dog’s ass before he comes in the house because he didn’t get the job done out there – and I’m apparently totally okay with that.
I don’t hate children and their dumb little doughy faces, let me get that note in here. My wife and I made the agreement before we got married that we’d have kid(s), but I seem perpetually nonplussed by the idea, and can’t seem to muster any excitement for the prospect. For many it’s simply the next step – an inevitability in the script. It’s right before the part with the surprise visit from the mother in-law, and right after the part where husband puts on a dress and contemplates suicide by police. I asked a coworker about this recently. He was in my office on a self-aware kind of rap about his children and the variety in their personalities – so I asked him why exactly he had them. Knowing the guy, I’d figured it was less of a drunk twenty-something failed-condom kind of story, and more of a planned exercise.
“Well,” he said, “I think it was something new to do.” I prod for more. “I don’t know,” he replies, “Outside of college I felt like I was having a pretty successful run at life. I was making good money, I could go out whenever I wanted, I was young – things were good and I could see living this way inevitably. I wanted to do it though, I wanted to experience having kids – make that my new life.” He claimed, “Kids make you interesting. You see that guy who’s fifty and he’s just the same guy he was at forty. I wanted to be the guy who’s fifty, but interesting.” This is possibly the first honest thing I’d heard on the topic. Many claim that they have kids so they can pass down tradition or further their own lineage – give someone something they never had – that stuff. To me they sound afraid, looking for that perceived immortality without considering that maybe a new motorcycle or an expensive lap-dance might fill some misunderstood yearn. Here, my coworker basically admits it was a conscious decision – not for them but for him. He basically had kids just for kicks. I feel like there’s a cereal joke in there.
Honesty seems to be the hard part for the modern parent. We’ve got our Louis CK’s out there being honest about how much he loves his two daughters – all while claiming they’re little assholes that contribute absolutely nothing to life – and this is seemingly starting to break down the taboos around being a parent. In December of 2010 Nerve and Babble founders Rufus Griscom and Alisa Volkman gave a talk at the TED conference about these very taboos – stuff parents are afraid to admit to themselves. I watched it online several months ago and found the brief presentation interesting, particularly when they talk about “average happiness.” When push comes to babies, apparently your happiness doesn’t go up – it goes down – as does your marital happiness. There are many studies on this – actual science stuff – and as Griscom and Volkman point out, (they have three children, by the by) nobody wants to admit that their children, marriage and everything aren’t coming together in a perfect harmonious life. Their conjecture, however, is that “average happiness” is a difficult thing to lay over your brain, maybe a bit too wide of a swath to paint with just two words. They submit that while the studies may be technically accurate – your life and marriage with children turn into a series of “highs and lows.” From their talk:
“Taboo number four: you can’t say that your average happiness has declined since having a child. The party line is that ‘every single aspect of my life has gotten just dramatically better ever since I participated in the miracle that is child birth and family.’ I’ll never forget, I remember it vividly to this day, our first son, Declan, was nine months old and I was sitting there on the couch and I was reading Daniel Gilbert’s wonderful book ‘Stumbling on Happiness,’ and I got about two thirds of the way through and there was a chart on the right hand side, on the right hand page, that we’ve labeled here – ‘The Most Terrifying Chart Imaginable for a new Parent.’ This chart is comprised of four completely independent studies – basically there’s this precipitous drop of marital satisfaction, which is closely aligned, we all know, with broader happiness, that doesn’t rise again until your first child goes to college. So I’m sitting here looking at the next two decades of my life – this chasm of happiness – that we’re driving our preverbal convertible straight into… it was uh… we were despondent.”
They move on to “average happiness”:
“And that’s when it’s great to be running a website for parents, because we got this incredible reporter to go and interview all the scientists who conducted these four studies. We said something is wrong here, there’s something missing from these studies – it can’t possibly be that bad. And, sure enough, Biz Mitchell did a wonderful job for this piece, and she interviewed the four scientists – and she also interviewed Daniel Gilbert – and we did indeed find a silver lining. … ‘Average happiness’ is just inadequate because it doesn’t speak to the moment-by-moment experience.”
Highs and lows – so says the pair. Twenty or so years of exhilarating discovery and high momentous points of light in your palm reading – coupled with an equal amount of devastatingly crushing lows. It’s encouraging hearing this from driven people – people with hobbies and things they strive for in life – things that don’t necessarily involve their children. You’re trading one idea of happiness for another. This bodes well for my writing, as well as my goal of living past forty.
Carl, our slobbery six-year-old, is something of a family token. We’re told he’s preparing us for children, but that sounds too tall to take seriously. His fat little wrinkly face charms everyone he meets, though he’s not much use outside of our own house – anxiety pissing on anything gravity keeps down. The skin infection has been particularly stressful as I’m a mushy-mush dog person, I love me some dog. When I’m stuck in traffic and fishing for something sturdy to brick through someone’s window, I’ll see some big dopey dog face flopping out of truck bed and I’ll instantly assume the same big dopey happy face. Watching an animal, like Carl, with an ailment where he’s unable to help himself – or vocalize discomfort or pain – tugs at the ol’ heart strings, and I’m more than happy to carry him up the stairs if he’s too sleepy weepy from being such a cutey patooty woogums. I’m pretty much Carl’s bitch at this point.
Cats are a different arena entirely. I don’t mind them, cats are alright I guess, but the stereotypes tend to be true. They aren’t easily trainable, or loyal, much, and if you die in the house they won’t mourn – they’ll feed. They would kill you, too, don’t be mistaken, no matter how much saying that out-loud makes your aunt cry. If a dog was larger he’d just keep trying to lay on your lap, we know this because we have Great Danes and Irish Wolf Hounds. If a cat was larger he’d kill you without a second thought, we know this because we have Lions.
Carl, the spoiled suburban house dog: His day consists of taking naps in the sunshine by the porch door and debating on which air vent he’s going to use to cool his balls. He sleeps on the carpet and the pergo, then on a big dog bed and a blanket in our bedroom. He sits on the furniture and watches movies with us, big droopy dog face hanging low until it’s nap time – he needs the morning nap so he’s rested up for the afternoon one. He’s an entirely spoiled and needy modern canine. At the moment he looks, however, like he’s been sleeping on a pile of rib cages every night. His back is riddled with patchy hair and crusty somethings, scabs and little circles of bare pink dog skin in random patterns. He looks like he’s forced to fight for his dinner every evening – a dozen or so angry sewer rats trying to steal the week-old cat fetus he’d scrummaged up.
Carl looks like he guards the junkyard – sleeping on a bed of old license plates – using a slab of particle board as a toilet. The yard owner stumbles by once a day, rarely sober, to beat Carl to remind him he’s alive, careful to avoid the pile of human fingers accrued from vagrants and the occasional high-schooler trying to hide beer in a rusty Ford Taurus. There he is, a patchy ancient animal who refuses to die, coughing up pieces of tinfoil and dental floss while strangers tease him into a froth from the length of chain used to keep Carl attached to a spider infested engine block. This is only what the patchy skin infection thing makes him look like, mind you, and with his genetically sad looking bulldog face the implied scenario only becomes more vibrant. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go massage Carl’s tummy and read him a story. It helps his digestion.
Let’s Talk Parenting Taboos: Rufus Girscom + Alisa Volkman
Sorry, New York Magazine. Parents are happy.
Louis CK – Kids Suck