Great Wolf Lodge

Great Wolf Lodge, in the Poconos, has no real wolves and isn’t really a lodge. But it certainly is Great, at least for my wife and me and our two children. We were there for the third time last week, a getaway timed to coincide with family visiting from New Zealand and our elder son’s sixth birthday.

Kids and parents alike immediately grasp the genius of Great Wolf Lodge’s arrangement: a waterpark blended with a hotel, GWL makes it possible to walk between your room and a giant warehouse of gushing water, slides, and towers, wearing only sandals, swimsuit, and t-shirt. Leave your money and phone behind in the room, and don’t worry about a key: fastened around your wrist is a paper band, Tyvek-tough, with an RFID or something inside that allows you to swipe your way past closed doors. The place is laid out like a labyrinth, a rec-room designed by Escher, and navigating its plushly carpeted, dimly lit hallways, dodging packs of running children and nodding at fellow exhausted parents, I can’t help but think of The Shining and the prowling eye with which Kubrick mapped the Overlook.

Although we concur on the felicity of GWL’s operating premise, parents harbor an additional measure of respect and appreciation for the practicality of its closed system, a loop—not unlike the nautilus tunnels down which we bounce in inflated rafts, shrieking like we’re riding roller coasters—whose limits promise to keep everyone safe. The safety of Ouroborous. Safety from what? From the external world and its dangerous unpredictability, its menacing strangers, its natural threats. Our comfort is premised on apocalypse just beyond the border: like a bomb shelter, or Charlton Heston’s pad in The Omega Man, or the domed cities in Logan’s Run (a space whose sybaritic pleasures resonate with the waterpark’s ethos).

I realize there’s something (paradoxically) infantile about the paranoia inherent to parenting. Since my kids were born I have been unable to extricate my warm love of them from the cold fear of their destruction, illness, sadness. G. K. Chesterton wrote, “To love anything is to see it at once under lowering clouds of danger,” and indeed I have found that the psychic burden imposed by having dependents is so encompassing and unrelenting that to have it lifted, even for the span of a twenty-four-hour stay in a room that smells of chlorine, is like an out-of-body experience.

Our six-year-old appreciates the various wonders of the water park, but it is our three-year-old who is primally transfixed by pools, fountains, bubbles, buckets, splashes, and jets. He points out every vent and drain he sees. Having learned the word and general meaning of “hydraulic,” he asks if everything is hydraulic. But his engineer’s eye is married to a daredevil’s soul, and his favorite activity is fording the waves of the wave pool. Wearing his life vest, he pushes himself into the cresting foam, lets himself fall backwards, rolls so his face is underwater for seconds at a time. I hover, inches away, ready to grab and pull him upright, but he shouts “Let me go, Daddy!” So I stand back, watching with the floating patience of a steadicam, flexing my hands and twisting my body in sympathetic mirror of my boy’s actions, as though this is a videogame, I the player, he the avatar.

Good Friday, Bad Sunday

It’s Easter weekend, according to the plastic eggs dangling from tree branches in our neighbor’s yard, and I am once again experiencing the odd non-sensation of my own long-lapsed Catholicism. I would like to say it’s something I still struggle with — indeed, struggling with things seemed to be the ur-lesson of most of the scriptural teachings to which I was exposed — but the truth is that I left the church as soon as I was doctrinally allowed to, following my Confirmation, and never looked back. Always suspicious of the soap-smelling classrooms of my Sunday school and grumblingly resistant to any commitment of a weekend morning (I remember complaining to my parents that I only got two mornings a week to sleep in, which made them laugh, and not in a nice way), I hit my breaking point when one of our teachers gently explained to me that no animals, including cats, could make it to the afterlife, since they had no souls. Maybe true and maybe not, but in any case, not a faith that fits or suits me.

Instead, I’ve spent most of my life engaging in the secular ritual of weekends, playing out my small personal drama fifty-two times a year, kicking off with the joyous arrival of Friday, bookended by the grim letdown of Sunday. At heart I will always be wired for weekends and summer vacations, patterns of leisure stamped into me by the school calendar, continued now in my career as a college professor. In the microcosm of the weekend, on Fridays I am young and just getting out of school; on Sundays, old, an adult preparing for the work of the coming week. Death and resurrection, not of the body but of the spirit.

Fridays lately have the added significance of being “family days,” devoted to Zach and Katie. You’d think that my role as a husband and father would mark the apogee of grown-up-ness, but in practice these days are about much more straightforward pleasures: putting aside schoolwork to experience the easy companionship of my wife’s love, the eternal and unflawed presentness of Z’s babyhood. Fridays remind me what my mind and heart used to be like before they got all kinked up and complicated, and I am as grateful for their simplicity as I am awed by their profundity.

The zen of model kits

I speak often and with great satisfaction of my Man Cave, our house’s finished basement where my nerdish technophilia is allowed free reign. My PC tower and its domino-line backdrop of external hard drives; my big, flat TV atop its nest of audio components and cables; a small museum of video-game consoles; and the nonelectronic pleasures of my John D. MacDonald paperbacks (inherited from my father, who freshly arrived from Czechoslovakia in the 1950s used detective and spy fiction to hone his English-language skills), white cardboard longboxes of unexamined comics which with every passing year come more to resemble stacked sarcophagi, a dusty Millennium Falcon playset packed with Star Wars action figures in various stages of dismemberment (the latter a gift from my brother in law).

As this inventory suggests, the contents of the Man Cave embody not just arrested development but a certain ongoing regression: a march in reverse through the stages and artifacts of the enthusiasms that made me what I am today. For that reason, it’s fitting that I have opened a new wing whose title might be “Boy Cave”: a model-kit-building station in a side workroom where the heating-oil tank and cat-litter box vie with paint thinner and acrylic glue for the prize of most fascinatingly noxious scent.

Currently on the workbench is Polar Lights’s Robby the Robot, a kit I’ve been dabbling with for more than a year, but which a few nights ago I decided to buckle down and finish. (Pictured above, the 1/12-scale figure is still missing an ornamental arrangement of gyroscopes on top of its head, and over that a clear dome that seals its brain circuitry in place.) Model kits based on science fiction and fantasy have become a central preoccupation in my scholarship, and I guess in some ways I have returned to kit-building in order to (re)gain firsthand experience of this strange subculture of artifactual play and constructivist leisure — its material investments as well as its surrounding discursive community (see, for example, the reviews and build-guides here, here, and here).

But I’m also realizing a simple and zenlike truth, which is that to build a kit you must build it; it won’t finish itself. And the difference between dreaming and doing, which has so often constituted an agonizing contrapunto to my publishing life, is like the difference between the unassembled plastic parts still on their sprue and the built, painted, finalized thing: a matter of making. If I can fit the pieces of Robby together in stray minutes (and it turns out that the rhythms of model-kit assembly fit nicely into the scattered but semipredictable intervals of parenting), what else might I accomplish, simply by opting to complete — rather than just contemplate — the process?

Tuesday

Watching Z pull himself eagerly along a shelf of books at our local library — thin tomes, the spine of each marked by a circular sticker whose color indicated the intended reading level — I allowed myself to hope that he will grow up bookish like me, drawn to the quiet hours one finds between a story’s pages, or the murmur of a parent’s voice reading aloud before bed. My mother read to me sometimes, but more consistently it was my oldest brother Paul, himself a highly intellectual, tense, and troubled young man with whom I got along not at all by day, but by night became my guide through lands of fantasy: The Hobbit, the Narnia books, A Wrinkle in Time and its remarkable, disquieting sequels. I would love to read these to Z, and more: Heinlein’s young adult novels, and Harry Potter, and E. Nesbit. But for now, I just whisper in the darkness of the nursery: shh shh shh, and it’s all right: waiting for the grape-flavored infant Advil to kick in and muffle his teething pain, our story a more simple and shared one of comfort in the night.

Coming home

Sharing one of my exceedingly rare cigarettes with a friend at this weekend’s SCMS conference in Boston, I joked about writing an avant-garde academic text in the form of a giant palindrome: it would be a perfectly cogent argument up to the halfway point, then reverse itself and proceed backwards, until, on the last page, it ended on the same word with which it had started.

Now that my wife, son, and I are back in our house, I see that the act of travel, of being away and coming back, is a lot like that giant palindrome. All of the preparations we so carefully make before depature — packing the suitcase, loading the dishwasher, turning off the lights — reverse themselves on our arrival home, and the first small acts with which I began (always, for some reason, the zipping-up of toothbrush and razor in my toiletries bag) are the last to be performed at the other end of the experience, shuffling disordered cards back into the familiar and dog-eared deck of our everyday life. For me, there is nothing quite like the pleasure and relief of settling back in at home.

All of this has an added resonance and poignancy, because today marks one year since another act of coming home. On March 25, 2011, my wife and I lost a pregnancy at 23 weeks, after medical scans that showed profound defects in the fetus and left us with little hope for a healthy birth or normal life for the child if it survived. “Fetus,” “child,” “it”; all inadequate but protectively distancing approximations for the boy we named Arlo, delivered as the sun rose outside the windows of our room at the hospital. That room continued to brighten and warm thoughout the morning as we sat with our son, saying hello and goodbye to this tiny pound-and-a-quarter person whose motionless face, after all our weeks of fear and dread, turned out to be not so scary after all: a gentle little visage, like a thoughtful gnome’s, with eyes that never opened.

There was a certain undeniable grace to that morning, a gift of release, but by nightfall much of the spell had worn off, and by the time we got home, the first real waves of pain had started to throb through the cushion of our shock. K’s mother was here to take care of us, and our dog (now deceased) here to need us in turn, and there was mail on the kitchen table waiting to be sorted, shows on the DVR to watch.

I don’t really remember how we got through the next several weeks (though I did have a moment of startled realization not too many mornings later, sitting at the kitchen table with my wife and mother in law, that the world had not in fact ended). We did the things we normally do: cooked meals, went for walks, paid bills. Early in April some robins built a nest outside our kitchen window and filled it with perfect blue eggs from which emerged a gaggle of adorably wrinkled and disgusting beasts that soon enough turned cute, sprouted feathers, opened their eyes, and flew away. In June we submitted our adoption profile. Six weeks later, we received a call from our agency. Two days after that, we found ourselves in another hospital room, meeting the newborn baby who would become our son.

We got home after that experience, too, and I guess the lesson here is that if luck is with you, you get to come home, put the pieces of your life back together, and move on. Sometimes leaving the safety zone is voluntary and sometimes it’s forced upon you, but either way it’s usually something you have to do in order to keep on growing.

Now that spring is here, robins are starting to show up in the trees and on our lawn. Irrational as it is, I hold out hope that one or more of them are the babies we watched through our kitchen window, grown up now and coming home themselves. The nest is still there, waiting for them to settle in and unpack their suitcases.

Radii, resets, regressions

We were out walking Zachary in his stroller this afternoon when a woman we ran into — herself a parent by adoption — gave us some good advice: “Don’t follow the advice in parenting magazines.” My wife and I laughed in agreement, and I added, “Or the advice in parenting books.” It’s not the first time someone has gifted us with this particular piece of meta-wisdom, this one-hand-clapping of zen no-advice. Back in July, before we’d even left the hospital, a wise nurse (and they’re all wise, I believe fervently), assured us we’d be hit left and right by people eager to share their parenting wisdom. “Don’t listen to them,” the nurse said. “Use your common sense.”

All this is by way of saying that I have some advice of my own to share, based on our experiences raising Z so far, but you are welcome to ignore it. I have no idea if these are universal principles; they’re just what I’ve doped out so far as a father to an eight-month-old boy whose development seems day by day to increase on a logarithmic scale, an accelerating trajectory whose skybound momentum is by turns exhilarating and terrifying.

Radii

A day before his six-month birthday, Z began crawling. It was a makeshift and ungainly thing, this crawl, a neuromuscular kludge in which, belly-down, he basically pulled himself around using only his arms. We called it the army crawl. Since then he’s graduated to a more classical four-point configuration, hands and knees in a busy scramble (and a neat trick where he tucks a leg under and tripods into a buddha sit).

Regardless of his mode of locomotion, the instant effect of the crawl was to convert Z into a free agent, newly untethered and agential, and in the same moment remap our house into a space of vectors and targets, reachable spots and desirable destinations. In short, our little boy now exists at the center of a constantly shifting circle of possibility, forcing us to adopt his perspective a la the cybernetic visual overlay of the Terminator: we look to see where he might go, where he is going right now, and move to intercept him. He exists in a radius of opportunity, and we exist in an overlapping Venn diagram of protective, even prophylatic parental anxiety, meeting him in a quantum space of superpositions, half-realized outcomes, probabalistic perils. A similar principle compels us, when sitting him at a table, to instantly sweep all graspable objects out of reach. Countering our countermeasures, he swings his stuffed green bean in wide arcs of influence, extending his zone of collision. The radii keep shifting, his hopeful, ours horrified, and in this way our home becomes a battlefield: not a real one, but the simulated space of a tabletop wargame.

Resets

As a result, the reset was invented. Resets involve picking Z up and putting him down somewhere else — nothing more, nothing less — a gentle interruptive teleportation that (so far) he fortunately seems to experience as a kind of game rather than as what it really is, a thwarting of his will. Using resets, I have successfully washed a sinkful of dishes while Z two-points and four-points across the kitchen floor. He’s headed for the cat-food dishes: reset. He’s pulling himself up on the stairs: reset. He’s about to topple the Cuisinart mixing bowl: reset. The reset is my strategic response to his tactics of the radius, and so far it’s working. As Z’s speed and range increase, all bets are off, a further way in which life as a parent has shifted us inexorably into the realm of the projective and hypothetical. (So much of our talk about Z is about what’s going to happen next, rather than what’s happening right now; it would be nice to live in the moment, but our responsibilities won’t let us.)

Regressions

When Daylight Savings Time kicked in a couple of weeks ago and we set our clocks ahead by an hour, all hell broke loose in Z’s bedtime schedule; what had been a predictable ritual taking us from bath to crib became a contest of wills, the baby monitor bringing us his unhappy cries as we collapsed onto the couch to eat dinner and watch TV, taking us back upstairs to the nursery to pat his butt until he dropped off, only to wake again minutes later. Complacently, we had believed ourselves to be doing pretty well with the sleep thing, and this new wrinkle in Z’s behavior — which we experienced as a kind of un-behavior, a randomizing of his actions that was scary precisely because we lacked a pattern to deal with it — made both K and me worry that, in fact, we didn’t know what we were doing after all. Imagine our relief when we learned about the eight-month sleep regression (which can also kick in at nine months and ten months): as his brain blossoms and skill sets swell, he’s simply got so much going on inside him that he can’t relax in the old way. Of course I am aware that this is a positive spin on a worrisome situation, hence seductive in its reasoning, but I’ll take it — because the truth is, there’s nothing more exciting than witnessing the small explosions of Z’s mind and body churning toward complexity like an internal-combustion engine, and as someone whose own childhood was marked by an overheated imagination and corresponding difficulty getting a good night’s sleep, I think I know where Z is coming from. Or at least where I want him to be coming from.

And that’s the other kind of regression that’s happening here, taking place across all the phenomena I’m writing about: radii and resets are themselves forms of blissful regression for my wife and me, as we try to intuit the world inside our youngster and respond to it compassionately, intelligently, cautiously, caringly. Raising a child, I’m finding, is also an act of re-engaging with the child in oneself, imagining yourself into his skin and senses, building a foundation of empathy with an emergent network of nerves and impulses that builds itself, second by second, minute by minute, day by day, week by week, year by year, into a person.

Night terrors

Z’s cough turns out to be just that — a cough — but while daylight, a trip to the pediatrician, and the purchase of a cool-mist humidifier have brought calm to our roiling first-time-parent worries, the strange noise that started it all continues to echo in my mental hearing: in the amber nightlit nursery, as my hands moved as deftly as a surgeon’s, tucking Z into a new diaper like a pickpocket in reverse, he emitted a rising squawk that registered as a more primal distress — not just discomfort but existential dread.

Of course I’m reading too much into it. (That seems to be what first-time parenting is all about.) Z’s weird noise, I see now, reactivated some part of my brain that’s been dormant for decades, a nerve cable buried deep in my cerebellum stretching back to my own childhood, when I lay awake many nights gripped in fears that were the residue of too much scary TV, too many horror movies, and one too many skims through the best — which is to say, the most extreme and upsetting — parts of William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist.

These materials were my prepubescent pornography, an irresistible lure of the forbidden and transgressive that was fun enough to consume by day, but with sundown turned toxic, a kind of slow acid bath for my imagination. Probably because I was raised as a Catholic, it was the devil stories that got to me the worst: The Omen, The Devil’s Rain, Beyond the Door. I envisioned myself being possessed by a demon, and would play out in my head dialogues between God and Satan about whether my nine-year-old soul was worth the trouble of fighting over.

These fears may be in Z’s future, though I expect my wife and I will be more careful about leaving copies of The Exorcist lying around. (The youngest of five, I inherited all manner of cultural detritus, including the Batman comics with which I learned to read.) For now, I’m relieved to know the tickle is in his throat, and not in his mind.

Why I’m sitting out the Oscars

1. I have a cold.

2. I want to watch Bob’s Burgers instead.

3. I have a seven-month-old son. Zach came into our lives last July, putting an end to my theatrical moviegoing for a long time. The last film I saw, the day before we got the call about the adoption, was Transformers 3: Dark of the Moon, and in retrospect I’m glad it was this and not something good that marked the close of this particular chapter in my life — like getting food poisoning the day before going on a diet. Since then, my media tastes have confined themselves to brief engagements of casual gaming on the iPad and half-hour television series like Arrested Development. I simply haven’t seen most of the nominated films, and after sitting through Billy Crystal’s opening monologue/medley and missing most of the jokes, I realized what a festival of intertextuality the Oscars are. When I’m properly prepared for it, as in most years past, the ceremony is a fusillade of allusions and inside jokes (though the oxymoronic nature of an “inside joke” told to a mass audience is not lost on me). This year, though, the horizon of my attention has contracted, the protocols of Hollywood pageantry becoming nearly illegible, a broadcast from an alien world. Maybe next year.