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Authors: Michael Lewis

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BOOK: Home Game
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THE OTHER DAY
on the way to school Quinn demanded, unusually, that I shut off the nursery rhymes. Then, even more unusually, she sat silently, staring straight ahead, ignoring my attempts to engage her in conversation. I tilted the rearview mirror to make sure she wasn't choking on something and was greeted with a gaze of what I can only describe as mad intensity. Finally she said, “My Daddy is dead.”

Four weeks ago, before the birth of Dixie, this would have shocked me. Now it's almost pleasantly familiar. Quinn's going through a dark phase. A week ago she came home from school with a stack of drawings. Gone were the blue and pink pastels she had favored since she'd first become a prolific artist. In their place were many disturbing furious black scrawls. One horrifying ink and crayon sketch resembled an ax-murdered spider. My child had entered her first new period.

“Oh, so now I'm dead?” I said cheerily.

“You stink, Daddy,” she said.

“Am I dead or do I stink?”

She thought it over. “Both.”

On some days she hollers insults at me the whole way to school—“You stink” and “You're dead” are two favorites—and if she can find something to hurl at my head, she'll do that, too. Driving her around these days is like playing right field for the visiting team in Yankee Stadium.

The division of responsibility that's followed the birth of a second child has left me exposed in whole new ways. With Tabitha essentially glued to Dixie, I am the only outlet for Quinn's understandable need to scream at her parents. I am also her main parental influence. I confess I hadn't realized the implications of this until the other night when, after a brutalizing day in which I foolishly agreed to take both children myself so that their mother might go to San Francisco, I was tiptoeing out of the room containing mother and nursing child and aiming myself in the general direction of the sofa bed. Mother seemed glum. “What's the matter?” I asked, not particularly caring for the answer. Out gushed a torrent of complaints about Quinn's behavior since Dixie's birth. She'd become surly with babysitters; she'd stopped sleeping through the night; she no longer ate her vegetables; she was resisting the final, crucial stages of potty training; she showed no interest in any activity except watching
Shrek
for the 150th time; she'd been rude to her mother when she returned from San Francisco.

In the good old days when Tabitha complained to me about Quinn, she did so in a collaborative spirit. We were joined by common interests; we were Munger and Buffett hashing out investment strategy. This didn't sound like that. This sounded more like an Arab attempting to engage an American on the subject of the Israeli army.

“She's not eating her vegetables because she's pissed off about Dixie,” I said.

“She's not eating her vegetables because she had a huge cup of Frosted Mini-Wheats just before dinner,” she said.

The Frosted Mini-Wheats had been my idea. She didn't say that; she didn't have to. Everything about Quinn was now my idea. My wife knew this was the time in Quinn's life when she needed to be indulged. But she also had an investment to protect.

“I just feel like my two and a half years of work on her is being washed down the drain,” she said.

“She'll get all her good habits back once she gets used to Dixie.”

“Once you lose good habits you can't get them back,” she said.

Never having had good habits myself, I was poorly situated to argue the point, and if I had, I wouldn't have been believed. My wife was raised in a military household that left her in full possession of the martial virtues. I was raised in a home where it was possible for me every couple of weeks to steal a jumbo sack of Nestlé's chocolate-chip cookies from the kitchen and secrete them under my bed at night without anyone being the wiser for it. I was meant to be six-foot-three and make straight A's through high school but as a result of skipping dinner and instead eating a dozen Nestlé's chocolate-chip cookies every night I wound up five-foot-ten with a D in biology my sophomore year. I could see my wife's point. She had spent two and a half years drilling her better qualities into her first child only to see them sucked out in three and a half weeks of prolonged exposure to me. She was the ace of the pitching staff who had shut down the opposing batters for eight innings only to watch the closer blow the game in the ninth. (I've had baseball on my mind.)

In the past three years I have tried on occasion to imagine what effects I am having on my child. I do this dutifully rather than naturally because it seems like the sort of thing a father should do. But I never get anywhere with it. The fact, as opposed to the theory, of life with a small child is an amoral system of bribes and blackmails. You do this for me, you get that. You don't do this for me, you don't get that. I've always assumed that if a small child has enough joy and love and stability in her life, along with intelligently directed bribes and blackmail, the rest will take care of itself. And my approach appeared to be working. Right up until the birth of her sister, Quinn excelled at childhood and did so, it seemed, effortlessly. It honestly never occurred to me that I should be in some way
shaping
her. I was one of those easygoing CEOs who believe that excessive discipline crushes the creativity of his employees. I believed in managing by hanging around.

In retrospect, the only reason I was able to get away with this pose is that I wasn't the CEO. I was more like a titular chairman, allowed to sit at the head of the table but never actually listened to. Now, clearly, I must take a different approach. The CEO's attention has been diverted by a difficult acquisition in a foreign country. The chairman is, however briefly, in charge. Everyone else is anxious.

THE THING THAT
most surprised me about fatherhood the first time around was how long it took before I felt about my child what I was expected to feel. Clutching Quinn after she exited the womb, I was able to generate tenderness and a bit of theoretical affection, but after that, for a good six weeks, the best I could manage was detached amusement. The worst was hatred. I distinctly remember standing on a balcony with Quinn squawking in my arms and wondering what I would do if it wasn't against the law to hurl her off it. I also recall convincing myself that official statistics dramatically overstated the incidence of sudden infant death syndrome—when an infant dies for no apparent reason in her crib—because most of them were probably murder. The reason we all must be so appalled by parents who murder their infants is that it is so easy and even natural to do. Maternal love may be instinctive, but paternal love is learned behavior.

Here is the central mystery of fatherhood, or at any rate my experience of it. How does a man's resentment of this…
thing
…that lands in his life and instantly disrupts every aspect of it for the apparent worse turn into love? A month after Quinn was born, I would have felt only an obligatory sadness if she had been rolled over by a truck. Six months or so later, I'd have thrown myself in front of the truck to save her from harm. What happened? What transformed me from a monster into a father? I do not know. But this time around I'm keeping a closer eye on the process.

I can't honestly say that I've found Dixie, at least at first glance, quite so loathsome as her older sister. She doesn't holler so much for no reason at all, and when she does, I'm usually not around to hear it, as I'm taking care of Quinn. That's the main difference this time: I now have what her mother regards as a good excuse to avoid the unpleasantness of these first few weeks, and so I do. Occasionally I even forget that she's there. It's a strange sensation to walk into a room, flip on the television, watch a baseball game for twenty minutes, look to your right, and find a five-week-old child you did not know was there looking back. Still, I've been left knowingly alone with Dixie enough, and been made sufficiently unhappy by her with fatigue and frustration, to have felt the odd Murderous Impulse. At the same time, I have already noticed, in the past week or so, a tendency to gaze upon her with genuine fondness. Here as best I can determine are the factors contributing to what appears to be another miraculous shift in feeling occurring inside me at this very moment:

  1. Maternal propaganda. I am a professional writer and therefore am meant to be keenly observant. Without Tabitha, however, I would notice next to nothing about my own child, and certainly nothing admirable. All I am able to see by myself are the many odd-colored substances that emerge from her that need cleaning up, and the many unpleasant noises she makes that shake me from my sleep. But there are all these other, more lovable things about her, too, and her mother sees every one of them and presses them upon me with such genuine enthusiasm that it thaws my frozen heart. Her facial expressions, for instance. She has her Smurf Face and her Bowel-Movement Face and her E.T. Face. She has her How-Ya-Doin'-Today Face and her Call-Me-at-the-Office Face and her Mafia-Hit-Man Face—which is the one when she curls her lip at you and you half expect her to say, “You talkin' to me?”
  2. Her gift for mimicry. A five-week-old baby is for the most part unresponsive to ordinary attempts to communicate with her. You can scream at her or you can sing to her, and all you'll get in return is a blank stare. But if you press your face right up close to hers and contort it into grotesque shapes, she'll copy whatever you're doing. Stick out your tongue, she'll stick out her tongue; open wide your mouth, and she'll open wide hers, too. Lacking anything else to do when we find ourselves thrown together, we do this, and the more we do it, the more I like her.
  3. Her tendency to improve with age. Already Dixie has progressed from waking every ninety minutes and screaming at the top of her little lungs to waking every two hours and screaming at the top of her lungs. While this might seem insufferable to anyone who didn't know any worse, to me it seems like extraordinary progress. An act of goodwill, even. She still won't win any good citizenship awards, but she's gunning for Most Improved Player, and it's hard not to admire her for the effort.

But there's something else, too, which I hesitate to mention for fear it will be used against me the next time we divvy up the unpleasant chores around here. The simple act of taking care of a living creature, even when you don't want to, maybe especially when you don't want to, is transformative. A friend of mine who adopted his two children was asked by a friend of his how he could ever hope to love them as much as if they were his own. “Have you ever owned a dog?” he said. And that's the nub of the matter: All the little things that you must do for a helpless creature to keep it alive cause you to love it. Most people know this instinctively. For someone like me, who has heretofore displayed a nearly superhuman gift for avoiding unpleasant tasks, it comes as a revelation. It's because you want to hurl it off the balcony and don't that you come to love it.

THE FIRST RULE
of fatherhood is that if you don't see what the problem is, you are the problem. For most of the past couple of weeks I hadn't been able to see what the problem was. Everything had been going swimmingly. For the first time since the birth of my second child I was able to get back properly to work. My fear that my children would starve, or, at the very least, be forced to attend public school, was receding. The time I needed to earn a living had to come from someplace, of course, but it hadn't been obvious to me where in the family it should come from. Not from my wife, to whom I am addicted. Not from my eldest child, who has made it clear that she can't survive on one minute less of parental attention than she received before her sister was born. The only person who would be perfectly untroubled by my absence was the baby. Having worked up enough feeling for her that I could say honestly that I preferred having her around to not, I could now, in good conscience, neglect her.

Sure enough, by laying Dixie off on her mother and various babysitters I was able to slip back into something like my old routine. Within a week I had a new book up and nearly running. All was well. And then her mother turned up in my office, with that look in her eye. I tried to head her off before she got started, by telling her just how secure I was making our family's finances. She was uninterested in the family's finances.

“You need to set aside time to spend with Dixie,” she said.

“Oh,” I said. “I've spent time with her.”

“You just went an entire week without
seeing
her.”

“It's not like she knows.”


You
know,” she said. Which was true. Sort of.

“How often do you want me to see her?”

“I think you should have enough material about Dixie to sustain a biweekly
Slate
column,” she said.

My first thought was:
What kind of father is it who sees his child just enough to generate material for his column?
My second thought was:
My kind of father.

In that spirit, but not only in that spirit, I took Dixie and her mother to the Parkway Theater in Oakland, to see
Italian for Beginners
. The Parkway Theater, the greatest invention since birth control, is a cinema that, on Monday nights, admits only people over the age of eighteen, and then only if they are accompanied by people under the age of one. Sixty parents of thirty babies purchase their tickets, order their dinners, gather their glow-in-the-dark dinner claim-check numbers, and head into a theater. There, seated on deep plush sofas, infants howling mightily all around them, relaxed for the first time in a week, they wait placidly for their dinners to arrive and their movie to begin. It usually does this without much warning. There aren't any previews or ads at the Parkway. Whatever they're showing just starts right up.

Watching a movie with thirty babies is different than watching a movie without them. It's actually better, in some ways. The babies themselves, all piled up in one place like that, are themselves worth paying to see. They tend to howl all at once—say, when a character laughs raucously or a shot rings out in the night. They also tend to sleep all at once—say, when a character isn't laughing or a shot isn't ringing out. Occasionally, they even perform amazing tricks. Just before the movie began, for instance, a six-month-old girl in the front row balanced herself in midair, with nothing for support but her father's unsteady palm. The whole crowd cheered.

The success of an evening at the Parkway turns on the movie. There are good movies to watch with babies and bad movies to watch with babies.
Italian for Beginners
, odd as it may sound to anyone who has seen it, turns out to be very nearly the perfect movie to watch with babies. It opens with a firm promise to be one of those bleak Scandinavian character pieces in which every character is either dying or despairing, or both. This came as good news for us, as it seemed unlikely in the extreme that any character would laugh or that any shots would ring out in the night. Nobody needed murdering in this one. Also, there's nothing like the misery of life as presented in Scandinavian art to remind the new parent that, no matter how bad he thinks he has it, some people have it even worse. Scandinavians.

Without Dixie I would have stewed in my seat, thoroughly ticked off that I had been conned by the cheery-sounding title into sitting through an Ibsen drama. With Dixie I was pleased to have been conned.

But then something happened. Two things, actually. First, about midway through, a bleak Scandinavian character piece became a spoof on a bleak Scandinavian character piece. Everyone who needed to die died in a hurry, leaving the remaining characters to cope with their despair, unaided. And toward the end of the second act their quiet Nordic depression took a dangerous U-turn, as all at once they discovered, as if they were thinking an original thought, what Scandinavians have known for centuries: If you want to be happy in Scandinavia you have to go to Italy. The second thing that happened resulted directly from this shocking eruption of Scandinavian
joie de vivre
: Dixie woke up and began to holler.

The implicit rule at the Parkway is that you can let your baby cry and enjoy the show and no one will think any less of you. The Parkway offers the guilt-relieving sensation usually available only to smokers who find themselves surrounded by other smokers or to fat people who find themselves seated on airplanes with other fat people. But if before you arrive at the Parkway you have earned a reputation with your wife as a neglectful father, this sensation is no longer so easily had. Instead, you must rise and walk around with your child until she is mollified. The final scenes of the movie I glimpsed only out of the corner of my eye. A happy Scandinavian remains, to me, an elusive sight.

BOOK: Home Game
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