Read Home Game Online

Authors: Michael Lewis

Home Game (6 page)

BOOK: Home Game
5.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

THE OTHER NIGHT
Quinn and I went camping in Fairyland. Fairyland is a toddler-sized Disneyland smack in the middle of Oakland. Three times each summer it sells tickets to about twenty-five parents and allows them to pitch their tents, and their toddlers, inside the park. For the first time in their young lives, twenty-five small children have a chance to spend the night under the stars or, at any rate, the skyscrapers that loom over Fairyland. A few months ago I mentioned to Quinn that we might do this, and she has been unable to contain herself on the subject ever since. Every other day she has asked me, “When are we going camping in Fairyland?” or “Can we sleep in a tent today?” She's never been camping or slept in a tent and can't possibly know what any of it means. That is why she wants so badly to do it.

We enter not through the main entrance but through a gate in the back of the place between the miniature Ferris wheel and the bumper boats. Twenty-five parents and their toddlers line up and wait for the gate to open so that they can rush in and find the softest, most level patch of grass to pitch their tents. In line are Quinn's friend Matts and his father, John. John is the reason I am here; John told me about camping in Fairyland. John, who has done this once before, also told me that I didn't need to bring anything to Fairyland except a tent and sleeping bags: Fairyland would take care of the rest. But John, I notice, carries many more possessions than I do. I have only three large sacks; he has eight. What is in those other five sacks, I wonder? What does an experienced Fairyland camper bring with him that I have neglected to bring?

The gates swing open and the other families rush to find the best spots in the dish-shaped campground. Quinn is more interested in the fact that she appears to have Fairyland entirely to herself, and she rushes off past the Ferris wheel to pet the donkeys. The great thing about Fairyland, from the point of view of a three-year-old, is that it is designed with a thirty-six-inch-high person in mind. The horses on the carousel are designed for a thirty-six-inch-high person, the cars in the steam train are designed for a thirty-six-inch-high person, the long tunnel in the Alice-in-Wonderland section is designed for a thirty-six-inch-high person. It's a home explicitly for children between the ages of two and five; any ordinary seven-year-old is made to feel unwelcome. With one exception, it is a Lilliputian world drawn perfectly to scale. The exception is the donkeys. These large animals, which Quinn claims are “llamas,” are also surprisingly aggressive. I rush after her and quickly lose any chance of securing a comfortable place to sleep. By the time I herd Quinn back into the saucer, all of the soft, level places have been taken. We'll be spending the night on the hard, steep slope just below the rim.

All the other fathers have their tents looking very tentlike. These are elaborate affairs, with great huge roofs and fancy walk-in entrances. The man in the tent beside me not only has his tent up and running, he has a fantastic contraption that looks like a giant fire extinguisher and sounds like a pneumatic pump. He's huffing and wheezing over the thing like a pro. He is inflating what appears to be a full-sized mattress inside his enormous tent. I do not own one of these. I have never even seen one of these. My tent is still in its sack on the ground.

Quinn looks around, then at me.

“Where is our tent, Daddy?”

“It's in there.” I point to the blue sack.

“Why?”

“I haven't put it up yet. You want to help Daddy put up the tent?”

“I want to go see the llamas.”

A bit tensely: “I need you to stay here while I put up our tent.”

In a flash, she's gone.

One eye on the donkeys, I unravel the tent and count our possessions with the other. These are: the tent and two sleeping bags I bought last week at REI, one head-mounted coal miner's flashlight that Tabitha gave me so I could see the barbecue pit when I grilled at night, three diapers, one sack of wipes, a purple and green glow-in-the-dark toothbrush, one tube of strawberry-flavored toothpaste, insect repellant, a pair of what Quinn calls “my stripey PJs,” along with the pink slippers she insisted she could not do without. Finally there is a tattered and yellowing Outward Bound student handbook from the last time I camped—years ago, when I spent a month wandering about a wilderness area in Oregon. In this tattered Outward Bound handbook is everything I have forgotten about camping. Or so I think. When I open it I see that it is, like Outward Bound itself, more concerned with my spiritual development than my survival. It's filled with aphorisms the Outward Bound student is meant to take to heart:

They are wet with the showers of the mountains, and embrace the rock for want of a shelter.

—Job 24:8

For the first time in more than two decades, I pitch a tent.
It has such an odd shape to it
, I think to myself when I am finished. John wanders over and stares a bit. “It looks like one of those old Volkswagen beetles with a tarp thrown over it,” he finally says.

“I'm a little worried the fly sheet isn't on right,” I say.

He thinks about what appears to be my problem. “I think you'll be okay in downtown Oakland,” he says.

The man in the tent next door continues to pump away at his inflatable mattress. Sweat drips from the tip of his nose. John leaves. I turn to the sweating man. So far as I can see, his giant inflatable mattress is no more inflated than it had been twenty minutes before. No longer does he seem quite the aficionado.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

He stops, relieved to have an excuse not to keep pumping away. “Trying to pump this fucking thing up,” he says.

I peer into his tent at the limp mattress. “How does it work?” I ask.

“I'm not sure,” he says. “My wife bought it.” Pause. “This whole thing was my wife's idea.”

I sympathize and yet at the same time do not. The truth is, I am pleased by his distress. It means that it is possible, just, that I am not the least-prepared father for the journey that lies ahead of us. Quinn and I may not survive, but we won't be the first to go.

A night in Fairyland divides fairly neatly into two dramatically different experiences. The first amounts to a rave for toddlers. The Fairyland staff lays out a buffet banquet of hamburgers, hot dogs, potato chips, and chocolate and vanilla cupcakes: food that not a single toddler can find anything to object to. Not a single vegetable! Not one fruit! For the first time since I have become a father I dine with my child, alongside other parents and their children, unaccompanied by torture-chamber shrieking. All the children eat happily, greedily, so that they can scramble away as quickly as possible to the Fairyland rides, which stay open until nine p.m. But there's more! At eight o'clock at night, when most of them would be in bed, they attend an expertly executed puppet show. They watch the story of Cinderella with giant sacks of popcorn on their laps and their mouths wide open. At eight-thirty a woman dressed as a gypsy leads them in song. At ten p.m. they stumble, exhausted and sated, back to their tents. There begins the second part of a night in Fairyland.

About two years ago, addled with lack of sleep, my wife and I adopted a firmish policy not to further encourage Quinn to view the middle of the night as the most interesting part of the day. We shut the door on her at nine p.m. and do our best not to hear or see her until seven in the morning. And it has worked, so far as we know, though she still tends to get up a few times a week around three a.m. and holler at the top of her lungs. But as a result of our policy I know next to nothing about her sleeping life. That changes this night.

We crawl into the tent at ten. For the next hour Quinn amuses herself by punching the roof and racing outside and trying to climb inside other people's tents. When even that gets old, she settles into her sleeping bag and instructs me to read her a book. Eleven-thirty at night must feel to a three-year-old like four in the morning to an adult, but Quinn lasts, along with every other child in the camp, until eleven-thirty. During the second reading of
Harold and the Purple Crayon
, she falls asleep. Here is a rough log of what occurs during the next six hours:

12:15. Quinn pokes me in the head until I wake up. “Wake up, Daddy. Wake up, Daddy,” she says. “What?” I say. “I need you to snuggle me!” she says. I curl up next to her. She falls back to sleep.

1:00. “Daddy!” I wake up and find her seated bolt upright inside the tent. “What?” I say. “You forgot to put bug spray on me!” It's true. I apply insect repellant. She falls back asleep.

1:38. “My sleeping bag came off!” “What?” I say. “My sleeping bag!” she wails. I cover her up. “No!” she says. “I want
your
sleeping bag!” As her sleeping bag is four feet long, this presents a problem. We negotiate and compromise on both of us sleeping under both sleeping bags.

3:15. “An owl is in the tent!” Again, she's bolt upright. “What?” I say, scrambling for the miner's headlamp. By the time I find it, she's fast asleep.

4:12. “Daddy.” I wake up. This time she's awake, alarmingly alert and rested. I am not. “What?” I ask. “Daddy, I just want to say how much fun I had with you today,” she says. Actual tears well up in my eyes. “I had fun with you, too,” I say. “Can we go back to sleep?” “Yes, Daddy.” Then she snuggles right up against me for what I assume will be the long haul.

5:00. The fucking birds are actually chirping. Quinn, of course, awakens with them, turns to me, and begins to sing:

There was a farmer had a dog and Bingo was his name, O!

B-I-N-G-O

B-I-N-G-O

B-I-N-G-O

And Bingo was his name, O!

“It's still sleepy time,” I mutter. “Is it time to wake up, Daddy?” “Not yet.” Miraculously, she falls back to sleep.

5:45. It's still dark outside. I wake up to find Quinn standing in her pink slippers at our tent door, which she has unzipped. “Matts!” she shouts. “Are you awake?” I hear a cry from a distant tent: “Quinn. I'm awake! Are you awake?” “Matts!” shouts Quinn again. “I'm awake! I'm awake!”

Forty-five minutes later, the four of us are all stumbling off to a breakfast of Sugar Pops. John, if anything, looks worse than I feel. And yet neither of us feels deterred; the evening went pretty much as we'd expected. “I just heard that they do this at the Oakland Zoo,” he says.

“When's that?” I hear myself saying.

THE SECOND RULE
of fatherhood is that if everyone in the room is laughing, and you don't know what they're laughing about, they are laughing about you. A few months ago when I dropped Quinn off at school I had that peculiar fatherhood feeling of having just discovered in a crowded room that my fly was unzipped. From the moment I walked into her classroom, my mere presence seemed to remind her three lady teachers of some impossibly funny joke. They choked back giggles and turned away and pretended to be very busy organizing the dinosaurs in the sandbox and counting the graham crackers in the box. After a couple of days of this I finally asked one of them what was going on, and while she said, “Oh, nothing,” she meant, “You don't want to know.” But her smile was indulgent; whatever I had done evidently had caused no offense. I should have just let it drop. Instead, I sent in my wife to investigate.

“They wouldn't tell me exactly what it was,” she said, when she'd returned from fetching Quinn from school. “But it has something to do with something Quinn said about your…”

“About my what?” I asked.

She looked pained.

“About my what?”

“About your penis.”

“That's all you can tell me?”

“That's it.”

That evening, as I showered, Quinn rushed into the bathroom. This in itself wasn't unusual. It's a hobby of hers to open the shower door and spray water all over the bathroom. She likes to watch her naked father wash the soap from his eyes with one hand and prevent a flood with the other. But this time she also had something she wanted to say.

“Daddy has a small penis!” she shouted.

The phrase came a bit too trippingly off her tongue. Clearly, it wasn't the first time she'd said it. I squinted down at her, menacingly, through soap bubbles.


What?

She took it up as a chant.

“Daddy has a small penis!

“Daddy has a small penis!

“Daddy has a small penis!”

As the little vixen spun out of control, I considered my options. To protest at all was to protest too much. I was as trapped as an elephant in quicksand or a politician in a gossip column. Anything I did or said in response would only make matters worse. Really, there were only two choices, silence or laughter, and so I laughed—mainly because stoicism is impossible when your three-year-old daughter is hurling insults more or less directly at your privates. “Ha ha ha,” I said, with what I hoped sounded like detached amusement. Sure enough, Quinn instantly lost interest in the whole subject.

Surprisingly quickly, my mere presence ceased to amuse her teachers. My vanity soon recovered, as it always does, and I'd very nearly forgotten all about the incident. But then, last week, as I walked through Quinn's classroom door, the giggles resumed.

I went straight to my wife.

“Yes, they're all laughing at you,” she said. “But it's only because of the way you dress your daughter.”

Since Dixie was born three months ago, it has been my job to dress Quinn. I had heretofore regarded my performance of this duty, and indeed any other duty I happen to perform, as little short of heroic.

“How do they know I dress her?” I asked.

“Because when you were out of town last week, I dressed her. And when she walked into school last week they all said, ‘Mama must have dressed you today!'”

“What's wrong with how I dress her?”

“Oh, please.”

“She looks fine when I dress her.”

“She looks like a street person.”

“Look,” I said, pointing to Quinn's room. “There's a war in there every morning. I do the best I can.”

“It's a war because she knows you don't know what you're doing.”

You might think that I would have come away from this conversation relieved. It obviously could have been much, much worse. But a similar nerve had been struck, the one that is somehow more fully exposed in the male who must constantly defend his self and habits in a house of females. There was a time not very long ago when I didn't think twice of wearing the same hiking shorts for a week at a stretch, or even once of going a year wearing only the shirts that happened to be stacked on top. This was not sloth; this was not indolence; it was
efficiency
. A minute more spent dressing than was absolutely required was a minute wasted.

In the three months that her appearance has been my problem I have done my best to instill Quinn with the same ideals. “Daddy, I'm awake!” she screams at some bleak hour when she is the first in the house to rise. I stumble painfully over the barricades and into her room and throw clothes on her before she has a chance to wake up everyone else, too. It's true that I'm not thinking much about what clothes I'm throwing on her, but that's because
she's three years old
. She's not supposed to care how she looks, so long as she does not look wildly dissimilar to every other three-year-old. Plus, my theory is that so long as she's dressed to get dirty, the way small children are meant to, no one will notice that I haven't the first clue how to do her hair.

But a fact is a fact and I can't deny this one: In the past month or so, Quinn has become increasingly difficult for me to dress. Every morning for a month the first conversation I've had with her has sounded like this:

“Daddy, I want to wear a party dress.”

“It's cold outside. Brrrrrrr! You should wear pants.”

“I don't waaaaaaant toooo!”

“But I'm wearing pants!” (Spoken cheerily.)

“No! I hate you!”

With which she collapses howling in the corner of her closet, forehead pressed into the carpet like a Muslim at prayer. It's been an odd experience. Quinn has throughout this difficult period acquiesced happily to her mother's aesthetic judgment, but the moment I walk into her dressing room she revolts. If it's forty-five degrees and foggy, she insists on wearing a skimpy dress. If it's eighty degrees and sunny, she demands wool tights. When a day calls for pants and a T-shirt (as every day does, in my view), she calls for her hula-dancing costume and hollers until she gets it. By my lights, she is wildly unreasonable. By the lights of the women in her life, her mother and her teachers, she has finally and justifiably decided to resist my incompetence.

I have a tendency to prove, at least to myself, that whatever I happened to do in any given situation was exactly the right thing to have done. (Small penis syndrome, my wife now calls this.) This time, I surrender to a force greater than my opinion and try a new approach.

“I want to wear a party dress.”

“Sure! Pick a dress!”

“Okay, Daddy! And Daddy, I want to wear Mama's lip gloss.”

“Sure!”

“Great, Daddy!”

And from there it couldn't have gone more smoothly, except that the party dress hangs awkwardly, the lip gloss winds up as face paint, and her hair remains far outside my abilities to cope with. The truth is Quinn doesn't look any better than she did when I muscled her into pants and a T-shirt. The origin of vanity is not the desire to be admired by others but the need to be in charge. The other thing just follows from it.

BOOK: Home Game
5.03Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Famous Last Words by Jennifer Salvato Doktorski
A Summer Smile by Iris Johansen
She Who Waits (Low Town 3) by Polansky, Daniel
Taking Pity by David Mark
Leopold: Part Four by Ember Casey, Renna Peak