In fatherhood, I've stumbled upon life's richest surprise.
The Game of Life
Conway’s Game of Life is a program that runs on four rules and a grid of black and white tiles. Seed some tiles and the four rules switch on, spinning up emergent behaviors that fill galleries with discoveries.
S., my son, embodies such a game. A program of genes from my wife (W.) and me, plus some random changes and environmental inputs. Unleashed, and we discover who he is.
Stuffed animals, no. Finger puppets, yes.
Basketball, no. Baseball, yes.
Lawn mowers, hell yes.
We try to encourage certain interests and directions, but it would be more accurate to say that we throw a lot of different things at him and see what sticks.
As he gets older, he generates more complex and surprising behaviors. Out of nowhere, he rhythmically banged out “Happy Birthday to Daddy,” on his toy piano. His friend Jack from school now “lives” in the garage, and they "take turns" playing with the driveway toys.
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Everything is new again
We went on vacation last week to Portland. It rained the whole time, confining us to hop between a string of breweries, the next one conformed to the same tired counter-culture styles as the last.
Before S., I probably would have wished we just stayed home, but it didn’t matter. S. had the time of his life and so did we. Seeing the world through his eyes was like seeing everything for the first time, with the purest joy.
They had a forklift! (he’d never seen one close up)
The drink was blue! (never seen that before either)
The bartender gave us a gummy! (he had one once before, on Halloween)
There was a dog named French Fry! (A dog named French Fry?)
We got to stomp in the puddles and get all wet! (Mama never lets us do that at home)
If S. is anything like me, we won’t be able to tell him anything once he reaches a certain rebellious age. He’ll need to discover a lot of things for himself. At least he’ll need to feel like he has. I am already hiding things around the house or in our life, waiting for him to discover them on his own.
Where to stash the Penland Book of Handmade Books? Or the Feynman lectures? Or The Incal? Or PiHKAL? In a dusty bookshelf in the basement, locked in a desk drawer, or “locked,” with a lockpicking book found nearby?
What art supplies, outdoors equipment, sports equipment, or life mementos should he find in the stacks of boxes on the basement shelves? What tools should he see in the garage, or the basement? What might be hidden in the backyard, or the woods nearby?
What kinds of people should pass through our house? Maybe, after a certain age, he won’t listen to us anymore. But he might find our friends a lot less lame than us.
W. and I are together in this parenthood bubble. Every night, we exchange pictures and videos of S., and trading stories until sleep claims us. She notices different things, or the same things, differently.
Before S., we had been together for a long time. I knew her deeply, and there wasn’t much she could do to surprise me. As a mother, she has opened a new dimension. She is changing as fast as S. is.
Her effort in motherhood exceeds mine in everything else. She knows to feel his hands to see if he is warm or cold. She knows exactly what birthday present he’ll love – a set of 5 trucks that we bought for $5, but he couldn’t stop talking about or playing with. She knows when he is ready to start matching shapes or learning the alphabet. She knows that a stuffed animal will help him sleep through the night.
Fatherhood is tough. It’s all consuming. And we only have one kid, and we live in a safe neighborhood, have stable finances, and have a loving family.
When I look at my own parents, I don’t know how they did it. And then I look at my grandparents, and I really, really don’t know how they did it.
I have so much admiration for what they accomplished. It is a recurring life lesson to appreciate my parents and grandparents more.
Not a lot, and everything
A friend in grad school once tried to tear me away from the lab, “On your deathbed, will you really wish you spent more time working?” Emphatically, Of course!
Now I just wish I had more time with S., and I appreciate every moment.
It reminds me of two essays from Paul Graham.
From Having Kids:
I remember perfectly well what life was like before. Well enough to miss some things a lot, like the ability to take off for some other country at a moment's notice. That was so great. Why did I never do that?
See what I did there? The fact is, most of the freedom I had before kids, I never used. I paid for it in loneliness, but I never used it.
I had plenty of happy times before I had kids. But if I count up happy moments, not just potential happiness but actual happy moments, there are more after kids than before. Now I practically have it on tap, almost any bedtime.
From Life is Short:
You only get 52 weekends with your 2 year old. If Christmas-as-magic lasts from say ages 3 to 10, you only get to watch your child experience it 8 times… 8 is not a lot of something.
Those bedtimes, those 8 Christmas mornings—they are indeed not a lot. But they are everything.
Thank you to Niko McCarty, Dan Goodwin, and W. for reading drafts of this essay.
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