We have two boys. Two separate but intertwined stories. I’m lucky to be here at the start of their tales. Amongst the first things that became evident was that I was not going to see the end of their story. I can’t even hope to see these stories through to their natural end. Nope, these tales are meant to extend beyond me.
My life has been anchored around stories. They have been a tether to the world and to the people in my life for as long as I can remember. I have loved movies and television my whole life, but in my heart I’m a reader. These days, with two very active little boys I’m often only a ‘reader’ as a description of who I was. That said the nights are getting quieter and longer, slowly but surely I can now begin to think of building a bedside tower of books to read for sheer pleasure.
I’ve had my nose in books since I was a kid. I used to sit on the landing at the top of the basement stairs, atop loosely stapled carpet, door to the “living’ part of our home closed, sequestered in my private little compartment, feet on the steps, bare bulb overhead atop the dangling string used to turn it on and off. There amidst the stored 2 litre bottles of Adirondack sodas I’d read through the scripts of the plays I’d seen my older brothers perform in middle school and high school productions. I’d read all the lines and all the stage directions and recreate Oklahoma! in my head. I’d devour the scripts to Cheaper by the Dozen and Sweetest Little Girl in Town for the hours between getting home and being beckoned from the kitchen just on the other side of the door beside me, to the dinner table.
On occasion we would go up to the Seymour Library and I’d look for scripts by Rogers and Hammerstein. I’d investigate the section filled with scripts until we were leaving and I was forced to pick. It was what friends of mine would do at the record shop, what I still do at book shops if I can steal a half hour in the afternoon. This was all before I was 10. I’d get a stocking stuffer book about Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabar of the quality you used to see at drugstore checkouts. Books with all the slapdash appeal and accuracy of neglected Wikipedia entries on singers of little note from bygone era’s. I’d read that biography time and again until it was incapable of maintaining its structural integrity. Then I’d read it ten more times, being sure to keep the many loose pages precisely where they should be. As a teen I would discover novels. I’d go through phases. A little Holden Caulfield here and some Phillip Pirrip (Pip) there. I’d take the Electric Cool Aid Acid Test in college, not a novel but so full of eclectic and eccentric characters that it read like one. This would spark my curiosity about Kesey and his perfect representation of how we all got it wrong. I’ve come to think of that type of outlook as misguided and stereotypical of my young manhood. To be fair though, he wasn’t altogether wrong, but as I went on my tools became more refined and I gave more credit to my specific history and I fell in love with John Irving. The early striving and reaching and failing of Water Method Man or the so-close, pre-brilliance of Garp, the tease that made you know that something great was to come. It did with A Prayer for Owen Meaney. A fairytale of the neighborhood sort. The story was so great I didn’t care about the clumsy attempts to make a statement of the moment in the midst of an allegory that was timeless. I followed Mr. Irving to India and to the prep schools of the fifties and sixties and the Hotel New Hampshire and felt like I was getting a private tour of a brilliant mind trying to understand the complexities of the human heart. It was thrilling and I relish visiting their still. I’ll skip alternate chapters in Owen Meaney now to avoid the now dated commentary on the political realities of the time it was written. I’ll read only the first half of A Widow for One Year. These are my stories and I can consume them however I like.
I moved on to Russell Banks. He is still the pat answer for the question, who is your favorite author. I didn’t have the patience or inclination for the early stuff. It was designed to spit at convention and in so far as it buttresses me when i know its right to spit at convention, it was helpful, even not reading it. But everything from the blended cultures and New York upState teen life of Bone to the Hardscrabble New Hampshire of Wade’s life were and are things of brilliance. Being in these books are some of the most wonderful times of my life, reading these books and discovering a tender hand at the helm of such hard stories of hard lives. The pure intellectual self satisfaction with which I read the account of Owen, the youngest son John Brown, as he told his tale like it were a gospel, and for him it was as John Brown in fact made himself a bit of a god while pushing us to confront our sins. He was as much a True Believer when it came to god and to abolition as ever there was. The book was a tome. And it was and is something I’ll carry with me forever.
I have had a very real and vibrant life in stories. They have provided me with a language to understand, organize, proclaim and make sense of the story of the life I’m living. What none of them have prepared me for is being a bit player on the outskirts who dies half way through. But to some degree this is where I found myself after Charlie was born.
At the moment, a phrase that is pretty much the entirety of my life since having kids, I don’t often think of the end of my story. In fact I rarely think of my story at all. Not that it’s not important, and their are certainly things that bring it to the fore now and again, but
Before I was a parent, I was the author of MY story. I was the maker of worlds and the decider of fates. Granted, on a small scale, but still. To some degree, to be the author of my tale was the ultimate power I could wish for. Since having the kids I’ve lost all that authority. Now my life and its schedules are determined by the needs, and frankly, often, by the wildly swinging vicissitudes of two toddlers, who with all the authorial power, but none of the awareness or judiciousness of a good storyteller, throw chaos like beads from a Bourbon Street Balcony on that which pleases them and threaten with tears and tantrums if they are displeased by something so slight as having to endure a moment’s boredom. I am completely out of the moment to moment control and authorship game when it comes to my life. My story is now one of messiness and disorder and to be honest, I never knew that I’d so appreciate losing the long view of next week or next month in favor of trying to manage and please minute to minute while always attempting to ensure safety and security measured now in years and decades.
Before kids I was having a great time steering the ship and living my story. But there was a terrible reality that started to creep in. The terrible reality that this is a story with an ending that is coming ever so slightly into focus. Looking 30, 40 or even 50 years out, there it was. The lines were blurry but I’d started to recognize the colors of that portrait. It was navigating, this knowledge that we all have at an early age, from my head to my heart and becoming more real for taking up residence in both.
Thankfully, I’ve come to understand better the larger view. I’ve sacrificed my central role in the story to be sure, but I’m so much happier now. In this story. In their stories. Still a featured character, one with impact and one with an important role to play in the stories of our protagonists, but more to the side of the main characters. For my graciousness in ceding the lead role I’ve been given a new perspective. A new perch. I’m still headed to where I’m headed, but now it happens in the middle of the greatest story I could imagine, one designed to be of more interest and import to me then nearly anyone else on earth, rather than at the end of a story that was mine, but which never grew to live beyond me. I’m a part of a larger, more inclusive and connected story now. I’m a part of something bigger, better and far more enjoyable.