What’d you do last Friday?
I was home with the nuclear fam in the electric city, and company was coming. We tidied up and bided our time such that at about 6, the kid was coming off an iPad double-header of Boris Karloff’s Grinch and Rankin/Bass’s Frosty, and I was on my iPhone grazing the comments on a blog post purporting to explore “What It Means to Be a ‘Dad’ ” by fawning on the fictional Dad Magazine. I think there’s a good piece to be written about the current moment of dad-based humor—the going trope about the corniness of the American pop, a running joke that happens to be popular with some people who would just as soon see patriarchal ideology gutted and stuffed. The commenters didn’t think this was it: “I suppose it’s a complete coincidence that people who can afford to freelance for sites like The Toast—subsidized by Dad, by any chance?—share an affinity for banal jokes about ‘sweet’ middle class Dads? …”
The bell rang, and, buzzing the guests in, I stowed my phone in the waist pocket of a new sweater I’d been calling a Dad Cardigan.
The kid had engineered a Duplo tow truck and also a second Duplo tow truck for the other truck to tow. He was lively—excited by the small party, by his impending fourth birthday, by the first jingle of the festive bell—and my wife asked me to take a picture of his too-cute two-truck capering. I fished my phone out, opened the camera app, and got one snapshot off before the kid grabbed the thing from my hand. He bolted to the hall. I wanted my phone back. “I just want to take a picture,” he claimed.
“Well, don’t grab. Lemme help you take a picture,” I said, starting to bend down. I was still starting to bend when he dove into a wing chair in the front room. “Let me take a picture of you,” he insisted. I paused. I posed. I knew his finger was defter with a touchscreen than mine ever will be. I decided he’d had his fun: “I’m serious. Give me the phone.” He said, “No. Smile.”
I wanted my phone back on principle, and also I wanted it back before he unintentionally emailed my boss or something. “I just want to do one thing!” he bargained. Lunging at his left shoulder, I saw he’d tapped open the video collection, like he was casing the joint, doing recon for a rendezvous with Steamboat Willie or such fellows. I was, stupidly, startled by his sophistication, and now I wanted my phone back before he intentionally got his own Instagram. He body-blocked and cunningly wiggled.
“You gotta give me the phone,” I ordered, hopping to his right. “I just want to check the weather!” he begged, a beat before I pried his fingers back to see it was 32 degrees in New York, with unseasonable warmth on the way.
Later, reviewing the boy’s work, I saw myself as never before. The photo is not badly composed, but the father is. He’s trying to be stern and failing so that the bitten lip of a withheld grin punctuates the picture.
The existence of the phone camera gives parents a fresh angle on things—the bottoms of the tabletops; the dust on the baseboards; the image of their authority, monumental as a bag full of God.
The kid also took three videos, each a second long. The first two were junk, and education. The third documented the full collapse of an unamused facade.
His cinematography betrays a fondness for his subject, and his emotional finesse in directing a performance is undeniable. Also—and I know this is just serendipitous—he seems to be mocking my authority by lighting my nose as if to hint it’s attached to Groucho glasses.
Looking at the images, I felt a jolt that set me drifting toward trying to square the kid’s perception of me and the culture’s vision of postmodern paternity—the what-it-means-to-be-a-“dad” business and the Knausgaard books and the Cosby shitshow, this epic defilement. I’d spent half the day staring into screens at that news and its grotesque echoes, in a mild state of vertigo. Television’s perfect father was persuasively alleged to be a villainous sociopath. It was as if Father Knows Best had been abruptly reworked with the Dylan Baker character from Todd Solondz’s Happiness in the title role. Has half of what popular culture said about how to be a father been a ghastly lie? Was some kind of reckoning due? Cosby’s 1987 Fatherhood was a best-seller for how many weeks? Daddy doesn’t want to know.
* * *
Last night, I took my phone and my notebook to a bar. The bartender on duty, who’s baby-sat for me and my wife, laughed at the photo. She said, “Who is that guy to the photographer? Take you and Felix out of it. Who is that guy?”
The dude two barstools over asked whom I wrote for and I told him. He said he’d been “a very good friend of Christopher Hitchens,” and I didn’t pry. He asked what I was writing about. I said culture stuff. He said, “Ferguson is on fire right now,” as if ruefully hungry to discuss the subject, and also as if he’d be pleasantly shocked to hear that any other subject was right now worthy of discussion.
I showed him the photo, and he was impressed. He said that two years ago, when his son was 3, his photos were mostly of his soft feet.
The guy was uneasy about the world he’d brought his son into and about how to bring him up in it. “How do I explain to him that we start wars mostly for oil?” How is he supposed to explain any of a thousand miseries? “At this point, I’m just like, ‘Act right.’ It’s like, ‘Life’s a disaster, but I got your back.’ That’s all I got.”
It was 52 degrees in New York, and it was supposed to snow.