Sunday, April 3, 2022

Becoming a Dad at Forty (or so)

Me, shortly after becoming a parent for the first time, and right around the time I turned 40

Another picture from around the time I turned 40. I'm not sure if I was really asleep in this picture or just pretending.

I was forty when I became a parent for the first time.

Actually, that's not true, that's just what I tell people. I was 39 when my first child was born, though I did turn 40 about ten weeks later. For simplicity, though, I tell people (if it ever comes up, which frankly it hardly ever does) that I didn't become a parent until I was forty – even though the truth is that I was still in my thirties. Just barely, but technically in my thirties nonetheless. Practically still a kid!

There are, of course, a lot of things a person isn't prepared for when they become a parent for the first time, but in my case there was one extra thing I wasn't prepared for, in fact hadn't even thought about: How often I would be mistaken for, just assumed to be, the grandfather rather than the father.

The fact that I was going gray, was in fact mostly gray, by my mid-forties didn't help. By the time my second child came along when I was forty-three, I probably really did look like a grandfather. A young one, true, and devastatingly handsome – er, well, young, anyway – but lots of people become grandparents when they're in their forties. There are plenty of people my age, younger, even, who look like me, and who are grandparents.

But I was not one. And it really bothered me when people just assumed I was.

I can't remember the first time it happened, but I remember once when Elyse, my second child, was about three and I was forty-six, we went to McDonald's for breakfast – Elyse had gotten a McDonald's gift card for Christmas; whoever gave it to her knew that we liked to go there once a week or so and get pancakes and sausage after taking my other child to school.

So this one morning I'm writing about, as Elyse and I sat and ate our breakfast at the McDonald's in Snellville, the one near the Target, there was an older couple at a table near ours – and by "older," I mean older than me; probably in their sixties if not in their seventies; old enough to justify an assumption that they were grandparents – anyway, this older couple was smiling and waving at Elyse and trying to make friends with her, as some people do when they see young children in public.

On our way out I tried to avoid them, but we had to go right by their table to get to the door, and Elyse smiled at them and told them her name (after they asked, of course) and proudly showed them her gift card. The woman looked impressed and said, "Did you take Grampa out for breakfast?"

My heart sank. Elyse was probably confused. (Grampa, or Pa, my father wasn't with us; what was this lady talking about?) I just smiled a smile I didn't really feel, didn't bother to correct them, muttered something about how we loved the pancakes, and got us out of there as quickly as I could. I hope I didn't show it to Elyse, but I was in a funk the rest of the morning.

This was not the first time some version of this had happened; by then it was common enough that I steeled myself for it, knowing it was likely to come.

Why did I dread it so, though? There's no shame in being a grandparent, even if you aren't even fifty yet, and, as I've already said, plenty of people are grandparents before they're fifty. I'm sure if I really had been the grandfather, I would have been proud and pleased to be recognized as such. But since I was not the grandfather, I felt a little insulted that these people might be implying (not on purpose or with any awareness, of course) that I looked too old to be the parent of a toddler. I wasn't obsessed with youth or with looking young or anything; it didn't bother me at all to look like I was in my mid or late forties when I actually was.

But to be someone who was forty-six, and looked it, and was just assumed to be too old to be the father of a young child? That bothered me. And I guess in part that's what I felt like was going on when someone referred to me as Grampa or Granddad or whatever.

But I was proud of my kids – still am – and didn't like it when people didn't realize I was in fact the father of these wonderful children. Now that their ages are in double digits – Elyse is less than a year from being an official teenager, for pity's sake! – people tend to realize I'm the father, which I appreciate. Also, it does give me a bit of added security, and also some pride, when I fill out an official form, at the dentist's office, let's say, and on the "Relationship to Patient" line, I get to write Father.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

1995: A Saturday Night at ExecuTrain

Kevin Eames, in his office at ExecuTrain, one Saturday very much like the one described below (except, obviously, this picture was made during the day and not at night). I really miss Kevin.

A corner of my office at ExecuTrain in the middle of the 1990's (and man do I wish I still had that Marx Brothers poster!) 

The lake and the back of the ExecuTrain building

It's dark outside. Sitting at my desk, not actually working, I can't see the lake that my office window overlooks, but I can see my own reflection in the window, and the reflection of my office and all the stuff in it. From my computer's CD player and speakers Ella Fitzgerald sings "Oh, Lady Be Good." [I realize now, more than twenty-five years later, that she was still alive then, though only for a few more months.] I love that album – The Songbooks (a compilation of some of the best songs from Fitzgerald's "Songbooks" recordings for Verve). I borrowed that CD so many times from my friend and coworker Chris Luse that my boss, Karen, gave me my own copy for my birthday. Ella Fitzgerald and jazz are still new to me, and I love this form of music that is so different from what I grew up listening to.

It's Saturday night and I am at work in my office at ExecuTrain in Alpharetta, Georgia. I'm twenty-eight years old. During a lot of weekday afternoons, when I otherwise would be at work, I go out looking for a house to buy, my first house, which I will borrow from my 401(k) to purchase. [The house I ultimately picked was that blue two-story in Lawrenceville, the one I lived in when I first met Anna, and in which we lived for the first three years of our marriage.] The arrangement I have with Karen is that I can leave work early in the afternoon to go house-hunting with my real-estate agent, Evelyn, provided that I still get all my work done and meet my deadlines. That is why, despite being in what is typically a Monday through Friday job, I am at work on a Saturday night.

My friend Kevin is here, too, working in his own office a few doors down from mine. He has an arrangement like mine with his boss, Jason, except instead of looking for a house – he and his wife Lisa already have a house – he is working on his Ph.D. at Georgia State. [I didn't know this at the time, of course, but a little less than a year later Kevin would have a heart attack, from which he recovered fully, but which was the first manifestation, as far as I know, of the years-long struggle with heart problems that would ultimately end his life, twenty-three years later.] I wish I could spend the whole evening hanging out in Kevin's office and talking about the things we like to talk about--books, music, Rocky & Bullwinkle, and sometimes even work--but we both have a lot to do.

So we are in our offices working. Right now, in this moment [and from the present I am writing in, as opposed to the present I am writing about, "this moment" is actually a quarter of a century ago], before any of what I know will happen to us happens, Kevin and I are both young – I have yet to turn thirty; Kevin is still five years away from forty – and healthy, and we have years of living before us. We have a lot to do; we are at work on a Saturday night; it is dark outside, and we cannot see the lake that's just outside our office windows.

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Having Breakfast with the Birds

The tufted titmouse
Doesn't flee when I step out--
But she looks my way
And the scolding she gives me
Is quite unmistakable.

After a short while
None of the birds seem to care
That I am out here.
There are no more screeching scolds
Aimed at me. Just the flutter

Of dozens of wings
And the hammering of beaks
On sunflower seeds.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

Garage Door Opener Pulley

Over the weekend, one of the extension springs on our garage door opener broke. I decided to replace it myself rather than pay a bunch of money for somebody else to do it; while I was getting ready for the repair, I took a bunch of reference pictures in case I needed them along the way. I ended up not needing any of them; it was a fairly easy and straightforward job which I finished in only about an hour. (I might have done it in fifteen minutes if I hadn't kept dropping things or forgetting where I put something, and also having to go back inside to wam up my hands--I did this last Saturday night, when it was very cold!)

Anyway, I really like this picture, even if I didn't need it to get the garage door working again.

Monday, November 15, 2021

"Try to Keep the Ball Low..."

There is quite a bit of wisdom to be gleaned from this exchange between Charlie Brown and Lucy (from March 19, 1969), but I don't think the real takeaway here is "try to keep the ball low." (I think it's something about how often the better choice is to just shrug and say, "It's a mystery to me, too," because, really, the Lucy Van Pelts of the world don't want to hear your answers.)

Friday, October 15, 2021

My Default Chekhov

Up until I was nineteen or twenty, if you had said "Chekhov" to me, I would have immediately thought of Ensign Pavel Chekov, the navigator of the U.S.S. Enterprise, played by Walter Koenig on the original "Star Trek" series and in a number of theatrically-released movies. He was my default Chekov. (Didn't know there was such a thing, did you?)

Sometime around 1986, though, my default Chekhov changed (both in the person it referred to and in the number of H's in the spelling, as you can see.) I was very interested in short stories then (still am, though back then I actually wrote them; now I don't), and I was reading a book I'd bought used somewhere or other called The Short Story. (It's actually an old college textbook for a literature class in short stories; it was published in 1967, the year I was born.) One night I read a Chekhov story in that book called "The Lament," about Iona, the cab driver in late-nineteenth century Russia, who is so overcome with grief at the loss of his son, and so unable to express his grief to any of the uncaring people he encounters through the course of the story, that at the end of the story he tells all his problems to the little horse who pulls his cab.

It's a stunning little story--only about four pages long, probably no more than 2,000 words, but heartbreaking. That's when my default Chekhov switched from the fictional twenty-second century starship navigator to the real nineteenth century Russian author.

I didn't actually read that much more Chekhov then, though, although I probably did sometimes tell people he was one of my favorite writers. Mostly I was reading the works of people who were American and still living and writing (Raymond Carver, who was still alive and working then, Bobbie Ann Mason, David Leavitt, Peter Cameron, Lorrie Moore, and a whole host of others, all of whom are still working as I write this) and dreaming about taking my place among them (which I never did--but that's okay; I gradually came to recognize that I didn't necessarily belong among them).

These days I do read a good deal more Chekhov, and I love his stories. But what I also love is the alienness of the people and places he describes--there's something immediately intriguing to me about being told that a character's name is Dmitri Illyich, and that he is sleeping on a haystack near an old barn in Vladivostok. Those exotic names (or exotic-sounding, to my American ear) get me every time.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Buford Highway Recollections

Book Nook as it appears now, in its current location on North Druid Hills road

In the early 1980s, my cousin and friend Scott and I would go on book-buying trips down Buford Highway once a month or so. (At least I remember it as being that often and that regular. Maybe it's something we only did three or four times…but I remember it as being every month or so for a period of a year or so. Also, for me they were book-buying trips, but I think Scott was actually more interested in looking for records.) Sometimes we'd go on a Saturday, sometimes on a weekday afternoon after school—most of the time when this was a regular event for us, we were both still in high school at Berkmar, me in ninth or tenth grade and him in eleventh or twelfth.

The high spot of these trips was Book Nook. Back then it used to be where Clairmont intersects Buford Highway. (Some years ago, it moved to—and still occupies—a building on North Druid Hills, which is fine, and I still go there two or three times a year, but I liked the old location better.) Book Nook was a large used bookstore with a great SF/fantasy section, and probably quite a lot of other types of books, too, but I don't remember because I never looked anywhere else. I do remember, though, that you had to go by—or was it through?—the comic books to get to the SF bookcases. (Book Nook is still a large used bookstore, and it still has a pretty good SF/fantasy section, but now when I go there I also go to several other sections, and also in their current location you don't have to go through the comic books to get to the science fiction shelves.)

When I was in high school, I used to go to the library during my study hall period and look at the original 1977 Science Fiction Encyclopedia—still my favorite edition, primarily because of the illustrations, which were omitted from the mid-90s update. I loved that book; I read more about science fiction than I actually read science fiction. Sometime in the mid-80s, a year or two after Scott and I had pretty much stopped going on our Buford Highway excursions, on a Book Nook visit with my first girlfriend, Laura, I found a copy of the Encyclopedia, and I pounced on it, though I was (and still am) a little disappointed that it didn't have the dust jacket. I can't remember how much it cost, or whether I was able to buy it right away or if I had to go back later (hoping all the while that no one else had gotten to it before me, I'm sure) with the right amount of money. More than thirty years later, I still love that book.

Besides Book Nook, there were at least two other places Scott and I would go regularly. One of them was also a used bookstore; I remember going there one afternoon and finding a copy of Harlan Ellison's landmark anthology Dangerous Visions and thinking I'd found a real prize. I realized years later that it was just a cheap and fairly common book club edition, but I still have that copy, and have read…oh, maybe a fourth of it in the thirty-five years since I bought it. (I've always been guilty of spending more money buying books than time reading them.)

Three books I still have that I know I bought at bookstores along Buford Highway in the 1980s

The other store I remember Scott and me going to on Buford Highway was primarily a used record store—I remember Scott buying an ABBA record there once—but they might have had used books too. I can vaguely picture the inside of the store, but not its location along Buford Highway. I can also remember the owner of the store, as he rang up Scott's ABBA record, telling him about how the members of ABBA spoke no English and learned all their songs phonetically but didn't know what they were singing. Scott just nodded and said, "Oh, really, that's interesting," but as soon as we left the store he told me that was a load of crap (which I'm pretty sure I already knew).

I recall one time on a Saturday Scott and I had lunch at the McDonald's that was near Book Nook, and as we ate, Mike Beaty and Toni Pecoraro, two guys we knew from Berkmar, came in. Mike had a huge afro—look at Neal Schon on the back of a late 70s Journey album—and Tony had shoulder length hair. The both played guitar and were in a band together. I know now that they were just a couple of teenagers, not very different from any other teenagers, but at the time I thought they were rock stars. I don't remember if we talked to them, or if they even acknowledged our presence.

I still occasionally drive down Buford Highway, usually just for nostalgia's sake, since all the book stores and used record stores are now long gone (or, thankfully, moved elsewhere in the case of Book Nook). Sometimes it makes me happy just to be there, since I have so many great memories of that time in my life, and of those book-buying trips with Scott. Sometimes it makes me sad that the area has changed so much, and sadder still that I can't be fifteen again, heading out with Scott to drive down Buford Highway.