Sunday, April 29, 2007


Dear Spike:

Every Tuesday and Thursday for the next few weeks, your mother and I will be sitting in a conference room at the hospital with a dozen other sets of expectant parents for “birthing class.”

Dr. Stewart recommended we do this. And it seemed to make sense that we should try it out. After all, we’ve never given birth.

OK, OK... I know we’re raising a feminist, so to be more precise, your MOTHER has never given birth. I’ve never sat, like a useless buffoon, on the side of a hospital gurney as someone else has given birth.

In any case, we take classes before doing all kinds of dangerous things. Before I was allowed to drive, I had to take a class. Before I was allowed to jump out of a perfectly good airplane, I had to take a class. And heck, back when I was in Navy boot camp I had to take a class before I was even allowed to fold my own uniforms.

So it stands to reason that, before I’m allowed to be a father — and with all the potential for screwing up your life that implies — I should have to take a class.

Of course, that’s not the case. As it turns out, the only real requirement for becoming a father is to have a single viable sperm floating around in your testes and somewhere to put it. There are no classes required and, alas, there is no IQ test.

Still, when you decide to make that slow, painful dive out of your mothers’ womb, I want to be the best useless buffoon possible. So I figured the class was a good idea.

Three minutes into the first session, I wasn’t so sure.

Here’s how it went: We all walked in, carrying pillows as instructed, then sitting around and making small talk...

“When are you due? Oh really? That’s just a few days after us! What are you having? A baby? Wow, us too!”

And then the instructor came in and had us introduce ourselves...

“Moms, I want you to tell me about what you love most about being pregnant. And dads, I want you to tell me about what you hate the most about this experience.”

Hate the most? Hello! Total set up.

To our collective credit, most of the dads successfully dodged the question, although one poor sucker took the bait ...

“Um, I don’t really like all the mood swings.”

He wasn’t at the second class. His wife is currently being held at the Salt Lake County Jail on charges of manslaughter and defacement of a corpse.

The rest of the first class seemed to go more smoothly, though it ended with a rather awkward “visualization” exercise, kind of a semi-hypnotic activity where we all spread out on the conference room’s industrial carpet and the instructor took us on a hike through our minds...

“You’re in a forrest, and there’s a stream of cool water, and up on the treetops there’s a little squirrel....”

In the right conditions — like a yoga class with a bunch of open-minded, granola-ly people vegging out on comfy yoga mats after a hard work-out — this might work.

But not with a dozen uncomfortable pregnant women and an equal number of goofy dads lying in various states of discomfort on a quarter-inch of carpeting over a slab of cold concrete in a hospital conference room with the smell of cafeteria food wafting in from just next door while a janitor in the next conference room over keeps bumping the wall with a noisy vacuum cleaner and with the hospital intercom periodically interrupting our walk through the mental mountains as a steady stream of gabbering hospital employees walk by the open conference room door on their way out to get a smoke.

The second session was better. For one thing, there were no silly visualization exercises. Instead, we practiced various positions, stretches and massages that will supposedly make labor more bearable for the mothers in our group. And the only dads that got hung this time around were the ones that hung themselves (like the guy who suggested, rather confidently, that we hold a contest to see which mother has the worst stretch marks.)

In retrospect, the driver’s education class I took when I was 15 was kind of useless. I learned to drive from my parents and my older sister. And it was several years and several hundreds of dollars in speeding tickets later before I felt like I really had the hang of it.

And sure, they told me everything I needed to know about skydiving during the pre-jump class. But that all pretty much blew out the door about the same time I jumped.

So I’m pretty sure that I’m still going to be a useless buffoon when the time comes to put all this birthing class stuff into practice.

But in the meantime, I’m visualizing...

I’m in a hospital room. Your mother is screaming. The doctor is trying to get her to push.

And up on the treetops there’s a little squirrel....”


Sunday, April 22, 2007


Dear Spike:

My friend Tom and his wife just returned from China with their new daughter. Donna is a beautiful girl, with an adorable button nose and cute puffy cheeks. She is about a year and a half older than you are, but I hope you will become friends.

Just down the road, Scott and Lesli are hoping their baby, Miles...

and his sister, Zoe, also will be friends with you.

And a little further away, but still close at heart, are your cousins Jay and Brett (the latter of whom who is due to join us just a few weeks after you come.) We’re planning to introduce all of you in early July. And I’m hoping you’ll become close friends with them, as well.

With the exception of the one you pick to be your spouse, you won’t get to pick the members of your family. You’re stuck with me and your mom and your grandparents. If you end up having siblings, you’ll be stuck with them. And someday when you have children of your own, you’ll be stuck with them as well.

Friends are different. Some, like Donna, Miles and Zoe, you’ll get by circumstance. Some, like Jay and Brett and the rest of your cousins, you’ll find through your extended family. And some you’ll pick up along the way at school or work, on sports teams or through shared interests.

And unlike your immediate family members, you’re not stuck with them at all. That makes them very special, because you choose to share your journey with them.

They also get to choose to share their journeys with you. And that makes it important for you to learn to be a good friend.

To that end, a few simple rules for friendship:

Be open. Never ignore the possibility that anyone — no matter how different — might become a friend. Never give up the possibility that a friend — no matter how far you’ve drifted apart — may become a friend again.

Be honest and loyal. Never say an ill word about an absent friend unless you are prepared to say the same thing when they are present. Never let a few ill words ruin an otherwise good friendship.

Be understanding. Let differences in religion, culture, class, color and politics be a reason for friendship.

Be a good listener. Never forget that there are two people involved in every friendship.

And perhaps most importantly, be yourself. A friend doesn’t need you to be anything else.


Friday, April 20, 2007


Dear Spike:

We had a baby shower for you on Sunday. I was amazed at how many people came. There’s still seven weeks to go before you’re due to join us, but you’ve already got such great friends.

They brought you blankets, outfits, shoes, toys, pillows and a bottle warmer. And they had a lot of fun at our expense (your friends Gus and Emily, for instance, bought you a shirt that says “Are you my daddy?”)

In that same spirit, almost everyone at the party asked if we were ready for our lives “to change” — talking in hushed tones or with eyebrows raised in a way that made it seem as though change was a horrible and frightening proposition.

But I’ve never been afraid of change, for without it, life would be quite dull.

Change is what brings us the seasons — the turning of the leaves, the falling of the snow, the greening of the world. Change brings the sun, then the moon, then the sun again.

Change brings us new friends, new adventures.

Change brought me your mother. And now change is bringing me you.

I don’t know what is in store for us as parents — other than you. But that’s enough for me to want, more than anything, the changes you’ll bring.


Wednesday, April 18, 2007


Dear Spike:

Wonderful news on your little ticker today: Dr. Stewart told your mother she shouldn't bother, any longer, with coming into the hospital for her hitherto twice-weekly checkups of your heart.

The doctor says it looks just fine.

The message came just a few hours before we were supposed to meet at the hospital. And I admit I was a bit disappointed.

I did so love seeing you on that ultrasound screen and hearing your heartbeat fill the room.



Monday, April 16, 2007


Dear Spike:

The first time I can recall being deeply saddened by the death of someone I did not know was in the summer of 2001, when the great bluesman Johnny Lee Hooker died.

Even though I had only just recently become captivated by Hooker’s music, and even though I had not yet been through his more than 100-album canon, it struck me as calamitous that the world would have to settle for what Johnny Lee had already written.

Two years later, I remember mourning over the loss of Frederick McFeely Rogers — a man my entire generation came to know simply as Mr. Rogers. At the time that he died, I had not watched his television program for many, many years. And yet I could still sing along with every song — and still can today.

Kurt Vonnegut’s death this week at the age of 84 was saddening for me in several similar ways.

Like Hooker, Vonnegut lived such a rich and prolific life — leaving the world with a vast collection of novels, short stories, essays and speeches — that fan of his work though I am, it is unlikely I’ll ever fully exhaust it. And like Mr. Rogers, his work will continue to echo through my soul.

My relationship with Vonnegut was a long and intricate affair. I was introduced to his work, as many millions of American readers have been, (and as I imagine you will be,) in high school with the assigned reading of Slaughterhouse Five. Smitten though I was at the time, I did not actually fall in love with Vonnegut’s words until a few years later, when I came upon the short novel Mother Night.

For me, each page of Night was a vaguely drawn treasure map — a starting point for an expedition, through my own mind, that sometimes had little to do with the experiences of the characters in the story. It’s been 10 years since I first read that novel. I can think of no work of fiction that has more greatly informed my life.

At some point, I became familiar with Vonnegut as a humanist and peace activist. Not the sign-carrying, drum-beating, chant-calling sort, but rather the rarer sort that looks deeply into the nature of man and ponders — aloud, so that others might ponder too — whether there isn’t a better way than war.

To that end, Vonnegut was fond of repeating the most famous words of the American socialist leader and peace activist Eugene Debs:

While there is a lower class, I am in it.
And while there is a criminal element, I am of it.
And while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.

In the final years of his life, Vonnegut often lamented that many of his fellow Americans had lost the ability to do anything more than scoff at such sentiments — as if the very notion of a world without prisons was so preposterous that it was utterly pointless to even begin a rhetorical discussion there.

So it goes.

There was a time, not so long ago, it would have been preposterous to believe that the illiterate son of a Mississippi sharecropper could become one of the most influential musicians in American history.

And there was a time, not so long ago, it would have been preposterous to believe that a shy puppeteer and musician from rural Pennsylvania would almost single-handedly turn the most powerful tool ever devised for selling breakfast cereal and action figures to children into the most powerful tool ever devised to nurture and inform their lives.

When you dream, my child, let preposterousness be the sand in your eyes.


Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Dear Spike:

With just two months to go until you arrive, your mother this week began to exhibit what is commonly described as “nesting” behavior.

I came home from work, the other day, to find our home more neatly cleaned than it has been for months. Your mom, on the way out the door for her music lessons as I walked in, noted that she’d also “done some stuff in the basement.”

I immediately panicked. Over time, our basement had become a pit of endless piles of camping gear, Christmas decorations, seasonal clothing, school supplies and other miscellaneous items we bring out once a year, if that. Littered with power tools, buckets of paint and bags of concrete, it is no place for a pregnant woman to be nesting.

I was relieved to find she’d left most of the heavy lifting for me — but only until I realized that meant that we were going to be spending a very good part of the weekend “in the pit.” In the end, it turned out to be a pretty good time with endless opportunities for self reflection on materialism (it’s absolutely amazing what you think you’ll need but manage to live without for years but then can’t bring yourself to throw away because you still think you need it.)

While we were in the basement, your mother came across an old Zippo-style cigarette lighter I picked up in Japan, when I was in the Navy a number of years ago. The inscription on the side of the lighter indicated it was carried by a soldier who’d fought in the three-day battle for Loc Ninh, in Vietnam. How it wound up in a Tokyo street market, I don’t know, but I felt I had to have it.

For years after I got out of the military I carried the lighter in my pocket, where I could feel it anytime I reached down to grab some change or to warm my hands — a constant reminder to always appreciate how bad I don’t have it.

At some point, I think around the time I met your mother, I stopped carrying it.

With two months to go before you arrive, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about whether we’re ready to bring you home. Several nights this week, those thoughts have kept me awake.

Over the next two months, we’ll clean the house and put the car seats in the cars and wash your crib and check the batteries in your baby monitors. We’ll buy your diapers and wash your clothes and power clean the carpets.

We’ll nest in ways that have nothing to do with you: Cleaning the garage or fixing the rain gutters or organizing the refrigerator.

We’ll worry. About you. About us. About money. About life. About this house and this town and this world.

And for me, there are bound to be some more sleepless nights.

So for the time, I think I’ll keep this lighter by my bedside, perhaps next to an ultrasound picture of you — a small midnight reminder to appreciate how bad I don’t have it.


Tuesday, April 3, 2007


Dear Spike:

Your mother and I spent the weekend turning the dirt in our vegetable garden. When the frost breaks for good, next month, we’ll plant the seedlings that are now sprouting in our kitchen window.

With all the worries you’ve delivered to us in the past seven months, it gives me great hope to think about the resilience of life, represented by those seeds. Out of almost nothing they spring up, each year, nurtured by only a little dirt and water.

I marvel especially at the sunflowers. From a tiny kernel — the size of your little baby thumb — they grow into towering giants, turning to meet the sun as it breaks above the house in the morning and bowing to its majesty as it sets beyond the trees in the evening.

There is another side to this magnificence, of course. As brown-thumb gardeners, it’s a side we know all too well.

Nature is also very, very delicate.

Each year, we kill far more plants than we manage to bring to bloom. Each year, we tell ourselves that this is the year we’ll succeed.

It seems reasonable to assume that we would become better and better gardeners, over time. But last year was the worst year yet.

On Thursday we visited with our friends, Scott and Leslie, meeting face-to-face for the first time with their son, Miles, who came into this world just a few weeks ago and who we hope will be one of your very close friends.

Your mother has never looked happier to me than she was as she cradled Miles in her arms. But later, as we drove home, she admitted that holding him made her nervous for what is to come.

“He’s so small and delicate,” she said. “And we’re going to have one of those soon.”

Indeed we will.

And so one day soon, you’ll find yourself rising to face the morning sun, turning and stretching to meet its majesty, bowing as it sets.

With each passing day, I know, I’ll fret at your delicateness and marvel at your resilience.

And pray that I turn out to be a better father than a gardener.