ASK A STRAY DAD: ON BILLS

You can’t spell Con Edison without Con.

Q: What’s the hardest part about living in NYC so far?

A: Well, before today I would’ve said it was laundry. And we’ll get to that some other time. But as of this morning, it’s paying my Con Ed Electric bill. 

Q: How on earth is the hardest thing about living in America’s biggest city the simple act of paying your Con Ed Electric bill?

A: Because they simply charged me $4,261.94 this month. And they managed to get away with withdrawing it from my checking account, too.

Q: $4,261.94??? THAT’S IMPOSSIBLE!

A: THAT’S WHAT I SAID! And when they said, “Well, we installed new meters somewhere, and did some math, and—abracadabra—this was the number we came up with. This is how much you owe us. MWAHAHAHAHA.” I said, “STILL IMPOSSIBLE. I’ve lived there four months! That’s more than $1,000 a month! $34.37 worth of electricity a day! For a 650-square-foot-apartment with no air conditioning, one television, and five total lights. You’re insane! You must fix this, immediately!”

Con Ed apparently didn’t see it that way. The fact that—thanks to automatic billing—they had removed two mortgage payments from my checking account in a single swipe didn’t really seem to bother them all that much. Nor had it, for a while. The extremely unhelpful young woman on the phone admitted that my account had been flagged since December 10. And that accounting had been studying this sudden jump since January 8, but apparently had decided it wasn’t worth worrying about and sent out—and collected—the bill anyway. 

We’re set up for automatic payments, because I’m the type of idiot who easily loses track of days themselves, let alone their significance within bill-paying cycles. For three bills that had meant fairly agreeable little withdrawals from our checking—especially in October, when the heat finally abated and I could pull the AC unit out of the window. But apparently that sudden dip was what got ConEd suspicious, so they came over, read some meter—hell, it could’ve been the odometer on their Econoline van for all I know—then decided that Bradley and I were charging a fleet of Teslas out our fifth-story window. ConEd’s bean counters rolled up their sleeves, licked their pale, thin, chapped lips, and happily plucked the cost of a 2008 Honda Fit out of our account.

I wonder why, when organizations are particularly thick-headed, it’s never in your favor. The ConEd guy always accidentally reads the meter for the whole 66-unit building and assigns it to your account, instead of getting the decimal in the wrong place and only charging you $9.17 for the month. The waiter always double-charges you for the expensive bottle of wine, instead of accidentally bringing free dessert to the table. The world feels like such a cruel and unforgiving place sometimes; it’d be great if fortune occasionally tipped the other way. After all; it’s not like ConEd’s gonna have creditors coming after it if IT’s short $4,261.94 for the month. (Unless, well, is THAT what this is, ConEd? Did you put too much on the Nets to win it all this year?) It’d be great if the little guy caught a break every now and again.

Particularly if that little guy looked a lot like me. 

The good news is, I have an amazing bank, who stopped to question whether it seemed in-character for me to open up a five-story tanning salon inside our apartment. They stepped in and stopped the payment and prevented us from going broke as a result of my clearly insatiable thirst for power. (I kid, ConEd. Still using just one lightbulb and one phone charger a day. Also: Go fuck yourself, you miserable utility. You disgrace the very concept of “utility.”) Anyway, as I was saying, First Republic intervened and helped where ConEd wouldn’t, staving off a potentially disastrous situation. I’ll have to deal with whatever ConEd’s diabolical future plans for us are in the next week or two. But at least I’ve been able to breathe again for the last couple of hours.

And, tentatively, laundry has gone right back to the top of the heap.   

ASK A STRAY DAD: MIDDLE AGE

Me, at 44, and finally beginning to look like what would happen if Wolverine applied to be Associate Branch Manager of the Moline Bank of America.

When the calendar turned over to my birthday I found myself wide awake, in full-on process mode, like that period of time between when you push “Print” on a document and when the printer finally begins spitting the page out. I’m not normally a person who suffers from insomnia—I’m more like one of those dolls who, when you put them horizontal, their eyes immediately close—but apparently, lying in a still admittedly strange place by myself as the odometer rolls over on another number to the sound of a toilet flushing overhead will make a person stay up and think about the choices they’ve made to this point.

I will confess to being one of those terrible people who believe that birthdays are arbitrary calendar smudges not worth the cost or fuss of the gift bag, while secretly hoping that someone will show up at my place of business with a giant cookie positively afire with the exact number of lit candles melting a hard wax surface across the top of the cookie. And in this fantasy I tell them that they shouldn’t have and I will mean it, but I will also close my eyes with the utmost earnestness and make a heartfelt wish and blow every single one of those candles out, only to have them relight of their own volition. And we will laugh and laugh and laugh because wasn’t that a funny joke to play on an old man. 

This one—my 44th—feels even more like some kind of tightrope walk between dread and excitement. Because it’s looking ever more through the rear-view mirror that at 43 I very likely had my own special version of a mid-life crisis, one that I’m clearly not out of. That raises a shitload of questions. Questions like:

Q: Is this really just the middle? 

A: 44 years sure seems like a long time, you know? But people are living longer and longer these days, and Heidi has the goal of reaching 106, so I guess this might not even be middle-life. Still: I’m not sure these shoulders are designed to dead-lift all this stress for another 62 years, if I’m being honest. So 88 seems like a very good, very round number. Totally doable. Only: gosh, the first 44 seemed to take an eternity to get here. The thought of doing it all over again, only to feel worse in the mornings than I do now and to watch the hairs sprout like dandelions from my ear canal and to get up and worry whether that mole on my chest was there the day before and could this be the one that turns out malignant, the one who turns all the others and my own skin against me; well, let’s say I’m having a hard time getting excited about my future prospects. I should probably say I actually feel very lucky to be in the shape I’m in, physically and mentally. I know things could be a lot worse. But I also happen to know that they’re heading that way; that biology is no longer on my side. There’s a lot of middle ground to cover still, hopefully. But I need to get my act together if I don’t want the back half to be one long trip to the doctor’s office. 

Q: Is this really all we have to show for the first half?

A: Not really a fair question. After all, I have a LOT to show for Years 0-43. Not the least of which is my family. But I did think I’d be far further along in something of a career I was proud of. Instead, that part feels like I’ve barely started. Better late than never, but even knowing that retirement is likely another two decades(!) away, it doesn’t feel like I’ll get where I want to be in time to really enjoy so much as a slice of ripened fruit from all my labor.

George Orwell had a quote: “At 50, everyone has the face (he) deserves.” Six years is not a long time to lift this face into something I want to spend time with every day. Makes me wonder exactly what I’ve been doing so far. Speaking of which:

Q: What’s next? 

A: The hardest, and therefore best, question. And I’d certainly hoped that after five months of subjecting myself to this grand mid-life experiment we’d have more of an answer. But honestly it feels like the more this goes on, the farther away we are from figuring things out. We—Heidi and I—seem to be making decisions that contradict the ones we made only minutes earlier. After all, if you want to move to New York, the one thing you DON’T do is buy a labrador puppy. But then again, if you AREN’T moving to New York, why are you talking to real estate agents and bank people about moving there? It makes no sense; we make no sense, except to each other. That’s enough for now, but it won’t be come Spring. And though it should be of some comfort that all the options feel viable and potentially positive, that only serves to make it worse. After all, there’s a reason romantic comedies always have one knight in shining armor and one soulless louse; two shiny knights would just blind our leading lady with indecision. Who wants to make a judgment call that’s not freaking obvious? Not me, clearly. Though 44 looks like the year I might just have to. 

The solace I take? If it’s the wrong one, at least I’ve got about another 43 years or so to make up for it.

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL

THE 2019 LETTER

I’ve been writing a Christmas letter for some version of my family since 1992, when I was 16. The first few were mean-spirited and absurd, a response to another family friend’s detailed list of annual overachievements. The worst happened to be 2008, the year I got divorced. The addition of four people into my life in 2011 meant an entirely new and robust cast of characters to write about. That’s when we started with the double-sided version. One side: a big update of everyone. The other side: seasonal meanderings.

I’ll spare you the details of who got their wisdom teeth out. Happy Holidays, everyone!

Honestly? Sometimes I’ll just forget, though it’s never for long. I’ll be working on some fun project at work, or a day at the office will be going really well. (The new job—the one in NYC that I took while the rest of the family stayed in PDX—goes really well a lot of the time. I have never felt so empowered, fulfilled or excited to get to work. It is the saving grace of this venture.) But as soon as the day’s over and I step out of the office, the gulf between me and many of my favorite people lengthens to an intimidating scale, and my brain wracks itself as to what I’ve done and whether it’s possible to keep doing it.  

 Heidi and I try as best as we can, and modern technology makes this more possible than ever. But you can’t lifehack a three-hour time difference. Which is why, this October, I became the human version of Home Depot. I so desperately yearned for the Christmas season to begin (along with my accompanying 12-day homestay) that I tried to find ways to will it into an early existence. 

Okay: one way. Short on time, living space, and funds, I made myself a Christmas playlist. One that hit all the sappy notes without making me burst into tears between the Chambers and Canal Street stops. One that had enough upbeat Santa-based songs to override the desire to rent a car and buy a box of adult diapers and hit I-80W after Judy Garland sings, Until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow. It’s five hours long, 97 songs in total. But the highlights are below. Consider it my “gift” to you:

“All I Want for Christmas Is You,” Mariah Carey. Enough has been written this year about this song and its gradual ascent into the Christmas canon. Personally speaking: The fact that I can bop along to the 50s-era beat while the lyrics make my heart pine to be with my baby is why it kicks off this playlist. 

“Linus and Lucy,” Vince Guaraldi Trio. Playing the entire “Charlie Brown Christmas” album on repeat makes this city feel more playful and warm-hearted, even as I’m dodging angry pedestrians wielding their Bed Bath & Beyond bags at me like they’re medieval weaponry and I’m Cersei Lannister.  

“Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!” Frank Sinatra. I loved this song, right up until Frank’s reference to frightful weather made me imagine being stuck in LaGuardia in a blizzard for Christmas. I suppose I’ll be able to enjoy it more as soon as we’re wheels-down in PDX. Then it can snow all it wants.  

“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” Next year all our troubles will be miles away. Oh Judy. I hope you’re right. 

“Please, Daddy, Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas,” John Denver. Just a gentle reminder to myself after the Fall I’ve had. 

“Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town,” Bruce Springsteen. The quintessential New York-sounding Christmas song, half-sung and half-yelled into a megaphone. I have a newfound appreciation for it this year. It’s the only song that can drown out a subway entering a station. 

“Run Rudolph Run,” Chuck Berry, for much the same reason. So many of the other songs wound up being downers that I needed the Chucks and the Bruces of the world to pull me out of my tailspin.  

“Christmastime is Here,” Vince Guaraldi Trio, again. Because it sounds like snow falling on an empty street. And the sound of kids singing gets me every time. 

“The Man With the Bag,” Kay Starr. A big blast of horns and we’re off. I like to think that when Kay sings Everybody’s waitin’ for the man with the bag, she’s talking about me, showing up at the house with two duffels full of dirty laundry and a backpack that contains not one single Christmas gift. 

“The Man in the Santa Suit,” Neil Halstead. Funny. Sad. Pretty much sums it (and me) up. 

“Christmas (Baby Please Come Home),” Darlene Love. I hope whoever Darlene was singing this to was listening. I hear it, and immediately start looking for one-way flights to Portland. 

“Please Come Home for Christmas,” Charles Brown. I avoid the Eagles’ version at all costs. Besides: this version actually sounds like he’s talking about a person, instead of a pile of cash. 

“I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” Bing Crosby. By this point I always try to be back in the apartment, before the facade cracks. If only in my dreams. Sing it, Bing. I’ll be over here in the corner with my Eggnog White Russian, wiping the dust from my eyes, and thankful I’m home again at last. 

Merry Christmas, Everyone!

ASK A STRAY DAD 12:

ON WRITING. QUICKLY.

Q: You look terrible. 

A: You should know this by now. We’re pretending this is an advice column. Please phrase whatever you’re trying to say in the form of a question. 

Q: You look…terrible?

A: Thanks. I feel terrible. 

Q: What happened? Stay up all night drinking?

A: Replace “drinking” with “thinking” and you’re getting warmer. 

Let’s rewind a bit: 

One of my favorite evenings in New York so far was a mid-October Wednesday spent at Books Are Magic listening to author Kevin Wilson speak. Wilson wrote The Family Fang, one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. His latest, Nothing to See Here, has gotten rave reviews. Wilson writes the types of stories I can only dream of writing—funny and unafraid, empathetic and yet ruthless with their characters. In person, he was funny and engaging and warm and thoughtful and as kind as could be. Which made the fact that he wrote the entire first draft of Nothing to See Here IN A MERE 10 DAYS feel, frankly, like a bit much. I mean: if you’re going to be talented AND prolific, can’t you be just a little bit of an asshole about things, Kevin? 

Wilson’s pace seems to lie somewhere between maniacal and miraculous. But walking out of the reading, signed copy of the book in hand, I’d decided two things: 

  1. I was going to write to thank him, and
  2. I was going to get over my damn fussiness and speed the hell up. 

Most of the stories you hear about novelists are of the long-suffering type. That a single book took a decade to write, or that only by squirreling themselves away in a cabin three hours’ hike north of Reykjavik for an entire winter were they able to even figure out what their character’s first name was meant to be. Those stories have always given me great comfort; because ever since I’d started trying to write longer-form books I’d equated the process to trying to carve the Venus de Milo with a feather. My brain enjoys the puzzle of finding the precise word, simile, turn of phrase, etc.—to the point that it will not move on until it’s out-clevered itself. That may be fine, in bursts. But when you have to do it 5,000 times over the course of a book, it’s more than merely wearying to write, but to read. And besides—it takes up the luxurious type of time I’ve never had. Writing a memoir took nearly four years; the manuscript sits, mostly unread, on my computer. Writing a novel based on that memoir took another two and a half years; five whole people have read it. 

The math is humbling: My ratio of hours of work to audience size is embarrassingly high. I don’t expect many more people to come along clamoring to get their hands on my writing. But hearing Wilson speak was a blast of cold water to the face: Could I not at least write faster?

Fortunately I had the perfect project upon which to push TURBO. My youngest, P, and I have been lobbing fragments of a story back and forth at each other from the time she was in kindergarten; one about a girl who is kidnapped and taken to space, with the burden of saving the Multiverse thrust upon her. We’d just never gotten very far with it. Upon moving to New York I picked at it whenever I felt homesick, or whenever she asked about it. It was coming along at the sort of pace my writing typically did. Which meant by the time I got it to a point where I would be happy with it as a work of fiction, she’d be too old to want anything to do with it. 

I came home and put Nothing to See Here on my desk by the lamp as a reminder of my newfound and outlandish intent: finish OUR story in time to have a book, printed and under the tree for her, by this Christmas. 

Q: And I’m guessing, by the bags under your eyes and the way your mouth’s just kinda hanging open, that you managed to achieve that goal?

A: All 55,000 words of it. The printing company sent out a note letting me know that five hardcover copies shipped Dec. 21, via express mail. It’s in Indianapolis, on its way to Portland, as I type this. 

And let me just say: five copies may be all wrapped up, metaphorically and literally speaking, but I know what I’ve written is by no means perfect. I’ve already thought of about nine pretty significant aspects I would like to add or change, on top of whatever thoughts P has. But having made it all the way to the end of a book in such short order, “significant” no longer bears such an uncanny resemblance to “insurmountable.” Finishing took me about 40 days, which looks sluggish next to Wilson’s—but compared to my past attempts, that feels like a World Record. Meanwhile, I’ve learned there’s a time and a place for all of my compulsive rewriting, and that’s once the damn story’s actually been written. When you can see the whole animal, it’s easier to decide what’s a major organ and what’s simply fluff that you’re free to spend a couple seconds on then ignore. Seems logical. I consider myself a fairly logical person. Not sure why figuring out this point took me about 30 years.  

I’m so grateful to Kevin Wilson for the not-all-that-inadvertent effect he’s had on my work from here going forward. Mostly I’m just grateful to him because now my little girl—who’s gone so much time this fall without having her dad around, and has been so patient and understanding and more concerned about me than she has herself—will get to open a present on Christmas day that is special to her. A 250-page apology note that tells her just how much I miss her every single day. And a unique and wholehearted expression of all of my love and appreciation. 

Not a moment too soon.

ASK A STRAY DAD 11:

ON RUNNING

Relatively accurate approximation of what it feels like to run in Prospect Park on any given day of the week.

Q: Why are you wearing that ridiculous outfit? You look like a tube of lipstick wearing a knit cap.

A: Because I made a bargain that if my friends and family raised over $180 for P’s Run for the Arts fundraiser, I’d run 20 miles—80 laps of a standard track. Only I’ve been putting it off, and now I really need to get out there and do it, but it’s snowing outside. There are three layers under here.

Q: But you WERE a marathoner, weren’t you? And you still run, right? This should be no problem for you.

A: Sure, at one point I did run a marathon or two (or 14). But I would no longer consider myself a marathoner, or really much of a runner. That version of myself peeled off its nipple guards years ago. The last time I ran 20 miles was also the last time I ran a marathon, and that was all the way back in 2011. Coincidentally enough, it was New York, and I kind of did it on a whim.

Q: People shouldn’t run marathons on whims.

A: True. In fairness to me, I’d had about 20 years’ worth of base training built up to that point, and took the actual race far more sensibly, pace-wise, than most of my previous attempts.

Q: So how’s training been going for this fool’s errand you gave yourself?

A: You heard me say it was snowing, right?

Q: Fair enough. But tell me: What’s it like, running in the big city?

A: Well, the good news is that the mechanics are the same. Right-left, right-left until you get tired: then turn around and run back. The logistics are quite another, and you need to head out the door with a different mindset if you want to make it back to that very same door in one relatively well-put-together piece. Having run in Chicago for four years right out of college, my lizard brain knew all of these things already. But I’d been spoiled for years, working for a company that didn’t have just one fitness center but three, featured a full 400-meter track on site, and had miles of running trails right across the street. This is before we even get to Portland’s vast trail system and uber-welcoming running community. My first week of running in Brooklyn, I was lucky to not get busted for indecent exposure, hit by a passing ambulance, and/or wind up floating in the Hudson.

I was totally unprepared, is what I’m saying. But you can do better than me. Here are a few suggestions as to how:

Remember your keys. My locks at home are keypad entry. My locks at the apartment are numerous and as old as Buckingham Palace. The keys look like the keys cartoonists draw when they need a pirate to open a chest he’s excavated. And if I forget them, I’m locked out on the street until B comes home at 11:45 at night, because there is NO WAY I’m striking up conversation with my neighbors. They’re unwieldy (the keys, not the neighbors). They often determine which shorts I’m going to wear, or force me to put on a jacket even when it’s 70 degrees out, just to have a decent pocket. The only good news is they pull double-duty by jangling so much that I don’t need to warn people of my quickly approaching presence from behind.

Bring along plenty of toilet paper. You’ll need it to line the seat AND wipe your seat AND get in and out of the port-a-potty. My first run in Brooklyn I had completely forgotten this aspect of running in a city; I’d been spoiled by always being within a half-mile of a clean, flushing toilet at all times. My colon, a mere 10 hours removed from a cross-country plane ride and the accompanying airport cheeseburger, decided three miles from home that he was done with his job for the day and it was time to bail. Immediately. I checked 11 bathrooms, found only one I would even consider stepping inside, and only then discovered that someone had taken every last square of TP. I clenched and crab-walked it home, vowing to never again leave the Place without half a roll of two-ply stuffed in my shorts.

Memorize your route. I don’t run with a phone. Nor should you—it’s an HOUR. DETACH ALREADY. But unless you’re a Coho salmon, ditching the phone means losing your most common way of determining how to get anywhere. So do definitely figure out beforehand exactly where you’re going, and find some landmarks to help calibrate your bearings. Personally, I would’ve thought it was easy. Run south until you hit the park, do a loop, run home. But there’s a large traffic circle right off the park, and I went one exit too early on the return trip. All the streets looked the same, there’s a grocery store on each of them around the same spot, so next thing I know I’m totally turned around. I head right, thinking it’s taking me North; it’s actually sending me due East. I was aiming for Fort Greene; I wound up at a Baptist church in Stuyvesant Heights, where a very nice couple of old people who’d lived there their entire lives disputed over where Fort Greene was and which way to send me. Eventually they had me head all the way back to the park, before turning back for home. Five miles had become 8. Now I do the same run every day. It’s boring as hell, but hey: At least I’m not trying to walk home from LaGuardia while my keys cut away at my appendectomy scar and my colon threatens to give out!

Look both ways. About a dozen times. Wherever you live right now, know that the people around you respect the concept of traffic signals to a far greater degree than New Yorkers do. I’ve been nearly run over by everything from school buses to little old ladies with shopping carts, all of them crossing intersections against the light. Even I run the reds now. But I always quadruple-check that no one’s coming before I set a foot off the sidewalk. I don’t want to be the live-action version of a Wile E. Coyote skit.

Don’t get caught up in the fact that it feels like a race. A step inside the 3.3-mile loop at Prospect Park feels like entering the Thunderdome. There are about a thousand people running there at any given time of the day. And if it’s a weekend? Triple that number. Bikes are zooming past you on your right, so close their aggression feels intentional. People and their dogs are shuffling across the street at varying speeds, though never one fast enough to get out of the way. It is a moving bar fight, and a lot of it is all headed either at you or in the same direction you are. When you’re used to tranquil runs in the woods with a few friends, when that is the state of running that you’ve grown not just familiar with but reliant upon, all these people and all this action can start to create an anxiety that feels very similar to race day. Don’t fall prey to that. Take a deep breath. Remind yourself that nobody’s handing out medals at the end of the loop. Not even if you blow by that colossal turd of a human being who seems to be accidentally-on-purpose legit SPITTING at people on his way past them. Not even after that. Even if they should.

Give people as much room as you can. But know they likely won’t do the same. It’s called exhibiting common courtesy. It’s also called looking up ahead of you. Rare is the runner who possesses the ability to do both at the same time. And finally…

If you don’t go looking for dead bodies, you won’t find any dead bodies. No side trails. No scenic jaunts to the old abandoned sinkhole. And no opening port-a-potties unless it absolutely will not wait. Stick to the trail, hurdle anything that’s just hanging out on the ground, and keep your head up. You do all that, and everything’s going to be just fine.

ASK A STRAY DAD 10:

ON HOSERS: An Existential (and Ultimately Fruitless) Interrogation of One of New York’s More Curious Habits.

What are you doing?

Why, rinsing off this patch of sidewalk with a garden hose, of course.

Why? It’s 6:30 in the morning.

It’s just a thing we do. New Yorkers. We New Yorkers. Us.

Did someone throw up or poop there?

Not that I know of. In this town anything is possible, though.

So it’s just…dirty, I guess?

I mean, maybe? No dirtier than the rest of the sidewalk. But like I said: It’s what we do around here. We hose things down. Every day, and twice on Sunday. Can’t walk down a single block in this town without having to step outta the way of a guy hosing the sidewalk down, thank the Ghost of Joe DiMaggio. It’s tradition.

Plus I can also rake the leaves this way. Though it takes about ten times longer.

But couldn’t you just, well…use a rake?

I don’t own a rake.

They cost, like, 5 bucks.

Hey man, easy. I’m not Jeff Bezos.

But you’ve easily sprayed $20 worth of water down the gutter by now.

Totally worth it to not get my rake out.

AHA! You DO own one. Can you just admit this is some phallic thing? You look like one of those fountain cherubs, peeing nonstop into the pool below.

Yeah, fine, whatever. This is probably about me feeling insecure about my masculinity, or not even really knowing what that concept means these days. If it even has any meaning. Should it have ever meant anything? Shouldn’t it be enough to be human? Why divide any further than that? And, going a little bit deeper while I point the jet directly into the crack between two concrete slabs: If I don’t know what it means to be a man, then what is this thing I’m holding between my legs and waving around at stuff even doing any more? If it’s just a means by which I can either a) procreate or b) urinate, and I’ve made it medically impossible for the former, then its only remaining job seems to be the anatomical equivalent of the plug on a cooler—it’s there, but it’s not why you bought the cooler. Is this all one big metaphor for me as a human being? Am I relegated to cleaning up after messes of my own making? Am I here only to consume, and then purge? This, this…hose used to stand as testament to my ability to water the plains—to continue the growing rest of the human race, as it were, if called upon to do so. Not that I ever wanted to do that. But now I most definitely cannot do that; and so unless I occasionally drag it out into the street and spray off SOMETHING with it then what am I even DOING around here, you know?

But also: look at how CLEAN the sidewalk is now!

So, um: I just realized I have an appointment across town that I am going to be at for a few days. Could you at least water the flower boxes while you’re standing there, spraying a single cigarette butt across century-old concrete?

Why would I waste water like that?

I will never understand this place.

And it will never understand you either, Weirdo.

ASK A STRAY DAD 9:

ON EMPTY CALORIES: The effects of cooking comfort food, thousands of miles away from where you feel comfortable.

Q: I am living on my own for the first time in forever. What the hell am I supposed to eat?

A: Well, tonight I had “Eggs in Purgatory.” Read whatever you want into that.

Look, you can eat take-out every night until you die of hypertension, but you and I both know: food’s value always extends far past nutritional and deep into the emotional. And right now the preparation and consumption of food is hands-down the most emotionally confusing act I regularly engage in. So maybe I’m not the best person to ask this question. Maybe I never was.

I learned to cook at a fairly early age. Not “my-parents-own-a-Cantonese-restaurant” early, but close. At 11, already bored with the narrow array of cookies that served as our month’s worth of Christmas desserts, I begged my mom to put me in charge of that part of our holiday dinner. And she—a notorious non-baker, the type of woman who would buy half-price pumpkin pies from Safeway on Black Friday, freeze them, then thaw them out on Christmas Eve and not even so much as try to hide the fact that they were resting in disposable aluminum pie plates—happily abdicated this responsibility. Only to watch in horror as I, only recently certified to make instant oatmeal without burning myself, picked the most complex dessert from Bon Appetit’s Christmas issue.

Three layers! Two different ganaches! Hand-painted holly leaves of dark chocolate and butterscotch! That torte was the last year she helped. From then on, I was on my own.

Baking melted into cooking once I hit adolescence, and realized that the girls I liked were equally as impressed by shrimp-and-goat-cheese stuffed Poblano peppers as they were acoustic guitar chord progressions. (My awkward fingers were never going to understand guitar chord progressions.) In college I hosted Easter dinners for the kids who couldn’t make it home; once I left school anyone passing through was an excuse to cook.

The crafting of food took on even greater significance when I met my wife, Heidi. Thirty-three and divorced at the time, I’d regressed to eating burritos from brown paper bags and speed-dialing Thai takeout; but because we were dating long-distance, every visit southward to see her in Phoenix was an opportunity to awe her with my culinary prowess. When she came to Portland I wanted to run her through a progressive buffet of the tastiest places in the city as a way to woo her north to my stomping grounds; when I was on her turf I wanted her to know that I would be able to keep her and the kids well fed every night we stayed at home.

My plan worked to perfection.

For most of our years together in Portland we split the cooking duties. The kids had their favorites, many of which resided in their mother’s dog-eared, hand-written binder, so force-fed with loose printouts and recipes written on the backs of envelopes and Trader Joe’s receipts that any time I was asked to find something in it, I gave up and handed it to the nearest kid. In that binder resides the recipe for cinnamon rolls and biscochitos, posole and strogonoff; recipes that to this day I dare not touch. On taco nights, or quesadilla nights, or Frito pie nights, I played sous-chef. Or—more likely—barkeep.

But the rest of the cookbook shelf belongs to me, and relentlessly I have encroached upon her turf as the resident chef in the family. It started when I won the kids over with baked ziti and steak teriyaki. But the kitchen shift became permanent when, about five years into our marriage and six months into her new job, Heidi crossed her arms over a haphazardly scribbled grocery list and confided in me: “You know what I hate almost as much as meal planning? Cooking.”

Hate was a word she passionately discouraged, but it wasn’t hard to see how she’d gotten there. Every night at dinner we would wait for the two remaining teenagers to come home from rowing practice. They’d burst through the door, cold, wet and weary; dump their duffels somewhere between the doorway and the dining room table, slump into their assigned seats, then wait for the plates to arrive. There was no offer to set the table, not even so much as a washing of hands. She would try to time it perfectly, so that the food came out hot but they didn’t have to wait for it to be served. And it would never be right, and the meal was never just what they wanted, or the chicken was bumpy, and their thanks when they remembered or were goaded to utter them sounded like muffled minor-key trumpets. On the nights when she tried to spice things up with a new recipe she braced for and was predictably met with open hostility from at least one of the children being served a hot, home-cooked meal. Adolescence needs an outlet for all of its hormone-soaked hostility. Their mother was the safest target they knew, the one who would absorb punch after punch and keep bouncing right back up off the rug and returning, defenseless, for a reconciling hug, and so she was that outlet. And food—the high-effort, multi-sensory show of unabashed affection that it can be, and in fact is for people like Heidi and I—was the easiest and most obvious trigger into that place of anger. I don’t think they consciously knew that they were hurting her. But after so many versions of the same basic argument (you never make anything good / I ask you every week for ideas and you just shrug your shoulders / well, we didn’t want THIS…) it was clear that dinners had become Pavlovian. The food was served. And immediately the shrill rings of discontent would commence.

It took me too long to catch on. Rather, I never really caught on at all; not until You know what I hate more than meal planning? But it changed that night. I plucked the pen from her hand, wrote the rest of the week’s meals out, and officially claimed the duties as head chef. I would take the heat for any and all food that was served, and Heidi—already doing nearly everything else for our family—could finally get out of the kitchen. From that point forward almost every breakfast, lunch or dinner that Heidi and I and the two girls ate—a total of about 60 meals a week—came from these two hands.

It became a source of great pride to me. To a stepfather still unsure of his footing with ¾ of his kids, this new official capacity presented an opportunity to prove that I was invested; though I certainly never would’ve told them that. I cooked family favorites, then sought adjacencies that would keep them happy while keeping me from growing bored with the same 10 meals. Pinterest became my own personal version of the binder. I knew we were getting somewhere when E started messaging me things she wanted me to make. And when, the weekend I cooked waffles for “Easy Like Sunday Morning” Breakfast, she put in an early request for buttermilk pancakes the following week.

The meal train chugged on like this for about a year and a half. I shifted my work schedule so that I could get home early enough to have dinner on the table when rowing let out. The lunches progressed from ham and cheese sandwiches to antipasti plates. By the time school let out in June of 2019 I was essentially operating a restaurant whose only patrons were the people who slept either above or below the kitchen.

Then I moved to New York.

You’d think I got the better deal out of that. After all, Heidi went from chief taste-tester to responsible for the feeding of our remaining family literally overnight. Here on the East Coast I’ve cut my number of patrons by more than half, down to just myself and sometimes B, an enthusiastic omnivore who is rarely around to chow down at the same time I make it and—I’m coming to believe—was eating popcorn for ⅔ of his meals at the time we started living together. The bar was low. He had no plates, two spoons and a fork, and in the beginning we ate whatever I had managed to make in the lone skillet off of the two plastic cutting boards he’d picked up somewhere between moving out of our house and arriving here, at our shared apartment. The first night I made rigatoni with tuna, fennel and Kalamata olives, and by the end we’d both given up and were eating straight out of the pot. This should not be a difficult standard to hit.

But she has donned the apron with honor and grace, while I’m the one who’s struggled.

Things have improved at least functionally: we have a full set of cookware, six dishes, six bowls, a full complement of mugs and enough spatulas to, more or less, scrape any sauce free of its hiding spot. The spice rack is more than just two kinds of salt and a five-year-old jar of chili powder. But a very demoralizing reality remains as long as I am here and the rest of the family is in Portland. For almost a decade I have cooked to connect to the people who matter the most to me. Today I do the same, but under far different conditions. I am three time zones and 2,893 miles away from my wife and most of my kids, the people I most enjoy cooking for. And so, in lieu of cooking for them, I cook to remind myself of them. I cook to remind myself of home. Which makes sense and does tend to settle me down a bit.

Until I go and try to eat the thing that I’ve cooked.

Because eating the thing that I’ve cooked reminds me in no uncertain terms that I am not at home. I keep cooking comfort foods, but their effect is the opposite. I am sitting alone at a cheap Ikea table that’s barging its way into my tiny living area, eating a meal that I’m meant to have made and be eating with my family. That realization is the opposite of comfort. So: discomfort food.

It makes me blindingly sad. Sliced-red-onions sad. And yet I cannot stop trying to find some secret recipe that will fix things. This week it’s Eggs in Purgatory, Chicken Shawarma, Chicken Teriyaki, and homemade Pesto Pasta. None of which have rewired my tastebuds in any substantial way.

There’s always a lot left over these days. For starters, there’s my vanishing appetite. But on top of that, I am accustomed to making food for a crew. When Heidi and I first started there were five hearty eaters and then, when P came along and got four serviceable teeth, six. We doubled every recipe out of habit and necessity, and during rowing season sometimes that wasn’t even enough. Scaling down from the full-sized dinner party that was our family to its current state, I’ve found that habit hard to break; and though I know better these days, I’m certainly not about to start halving meals. So B and I always have leftovers; they’re even sadder than the first heating. Tonight an extra mini-ciabatta loaf and four eggs, poached in a latex-paint-thick spicy tomato sauce, will go into a Tupperware and then into the fridge. I’ve never had the opportunity—let alone the inclination—to reheat eggs before. I wonder if my workmates will silently curse my name when I overdo it with the breakroom microwave. I hope it doesn’t come to that.

(One thing that brings me no small measure of satisfaction is knowing that I’ll wake up in the morning, zombie-shuffle my way into the kitchen, and inevitably find a wooden spoon teetering on the cutting board indicating that B has used it to shovel at least half of the leftovers into his face in the dark of night.)

So, to (finally) answer your question: I really don’t know what the hell you’re supposed to eat. If this were purely a matter of nutritional sustenance there would be an easy answer, and it would be constructed in the shape of a pyramid. But I guess I’ve been trying to say that at least for me it’s become more complicated than that. That bringing a random assortment of ingredients together into something fragrant and warm and delicious should be comforting, and yet I’m at a point in my life where I find that to be impossible. That I wish I could take a pill that would give me all the nutrition I need to survive, then another to make me forget that I need to eat. That over the course of several years food has come to mean family, and their absence is felt in every bite.

What I’m trying to say is that I have eaten all the food I need.

And also that I am absolutely starving.

ASK A STRAY DAD 8:

ON RED-EYES

Q: ANY TIPS ON TRANS-CONTINENTAL TRAVEL?

A: Uh, don’t do it? Avoid it at all costs? Consider NOT living thousands of miles away from your family, whom you apparently love but who can even tell at this point?

Q: BUT YOU MUST BE RACKING UP A LOT OF MILES…

A: Not enough to win some kind of prize, I can tell you that much. I am the kid who just plunked $150 into a skeeball machine so I could win enough tickets to take home a $6 digital watch. Only I left the tickets on the table, and the same kid who ate all the pepperonis off the pizzas took them, and now he’s got a brand-new Miami Marlins hat with a silver sticker on the brim that says “OFFICIAL MLB MERCHANDISE” and I only have enough left over for a plastic starfish.

So this is no jet-setting lifestyle I’m leading. But if you want to know what it’s like to travel as a member of a minor league soccer team, or if you really want to feel better about how you spend your Thursday and Sunday evenings, allow me to regale you with my rules for travel:

1) You must pick one departure location, and stick with it. For Portland this isn’t a problem. No one’s flying out of anything but the world’s best airport, even if there were another option within 100 miles. But on the other end I have access to three major—though painfully flawed—options within a dozen miles of the Manhattan office. For one reason or another LaGuardia hasn’t come up the big winner on any of my early searches, so already that’s been nixed. That leaves Newark and JFK.

And Newark: I just want to say, I’ve tried. But you’ve made it so I essentially have to swim the Hudson, perform a divine act, and THEN catch the randomly scheduled Northeast Corridor train, PLUS the AirTrain, before I stand in security behind 300 people who apparently have never flown or even seen an airplane before. I mean, they can’t ALL be on Rumshpringa, can they?

So: JFK it is. And that’s just fine by me, because JFK means both Delta (trying REALLY HARD to repair its reputation) and JetBlue (the cool kid in class that I have no idea why I’m trying so hard to get them to like me but I am). Speaking of which:

2) Try to stick to one airline, if you can. This isn’t for the sake of miles, or some kind of rewards, but about giving your brain a break. The fewer variables with this kind of repetitious long-distance travel, the better. JetBlue’s got some nice perks: they tend to be cheap—without making me set fire to my luggage—and their flight schedule meshes perfectly with a person who needs to leave both locations at the last possible moment. But the best thing they have going for them right now is that I’ve flown them enough to know what to expect. I know they’re going to be a little bit late leaving JFK, but will more than make up for it in the air. I know their flight attendants aren’t going to be laying on the sass at 2 in the morning. And I know that when I land, I’m going to come out of the gate and turn left. Really, at this point, it’s all I can ask for. Speaking of things that shouldn’t be too much to ask for…

3) Those U-shaped pillows are borderline useless for anyone with a human-sized neck. Still, they’re better than nothing. Someday, someone’s going to invent a pillow that will allow me to fall asleep on an airplane without throwing my entire spine into a week-long paralysis. And when that day comes I will empty my retirement account.

My typical flight schedule is out of New York on Thursday night at 8:30 or so, and into Portland by 11PM. I take a Lyft home (fingers crossed it’s Alex, the guy with the 5-star rating and the neon trim on the back doors), shower the transit off me, then hit the pillow, hoping to wake Heidi up with all the noise I’m making. It never works. On Sunday night I’m at the airport by 9:30, for an 11PM flight that gets me in at 6AM. One hour and three trains later I’m back at the apartment, with about 90 minutes to spare before I need to leave for work. On those two flights I average about 45 minutes of sleep. With a good pillow I feel like I could top at least four hours, and show up at work on Monday with a halfway decent chance of making it to the end without drooling on a coworker. But as long as this is the best neck pillows can get I will continue to look and feel on those days as if I am a concussed Fred Savage, cast as an extra on “The Walking Dead.”

4) Remember: No seat is perfect. Heidi has made a habit of checking me in for my flights. Not that I’m incapable; she just gets notifications, and likes to do things for me from afar, and this happens to be one of the things she can do. JetBlue sometimes offers cheap upgrades to the first few rows, which have the added benefit of more legroom, so whenever they’re reasonable she splurges on me and suddenly I find myself in Row 2 of 25. Sounds great, right? It mostly is. Until the time an elderly couple loaded full of vodka and white privilege stumbled in, screaming at each other, and took up the three seats directly in front. For the next six hours I had an almost-front-row seat of the two as they removed their shoes, put their feet up on the bulkhead, and argued over whether she was being ridiculous about not being able to see out of her right eye. Upon takeoff she lost an earring, and he decided that was the perfect opportunity to berate and belittle her, at a volume no set of headphones was going to be able to overwhelm. And then I felt him grab my foot and move it in search of said earring, and I will admit to having kicked back—just a little—and whispered “what the fuck, dude” as a response. They bickered and/or searched for that earring for the entirety of the flight. They said some awful things to each other. She cried for a solid 40 minutes at one point. And when the front wheel touched down he immediately withdrew his iPhone 5 from its holster and speed-dialed the airline to file a lost item complaint, despite still being seated directly over the location of its disappearance. And as soon as the Airbus came to a complete stop and the seatbelt sign went off I did, indeed, rise, open the overhead compartment, move her Louis Vuitton duffle bag—which she had shoved over mine—back as far away from those two shitheads as possible, and lo I did exit the plane first, and repeated several mantras essentially thanking the heavens that I like the person I married as much as I do.

Point being: Life is random, the best you can do is try to get a good seat, and if it doesn’t work out, at least write it all down. It’ll either make for a good story, or an accurate statement to TSA.

This is getting far too long. Let’s Buzzfeed this sucker:

5) Wear slip-on shoes.

6) Never pick a TSA line whose X-ray machine is being operated by a man who looks like Steven Seagal.

7) Don’t eat shrimp at the airport. ANY airport.

8) If there’s ever been a time to say yes when a man in a suit and waistcoat offers you a double gin and tonic, it’s when you’re in the middle seat over the wing of a 6-hour flight out of Newark.

All for obvious reasons. And remember:

9) That magazine in the pocket in front of you? That’s yours to keep. Fingers crossed no one’s attempted the crossword yet!

Safe travels, everyone.

Next time: How to immunize yourself from homesickness! Or not!

ASK A STRAY DAD LIGHTNING ROUND!

ON TRAFFIC

It’s been too long, and I’m not finding the time for a longer post these days. So in the meantime, here are just a few of the questions that come to mind while walking down the streets (or riding a subway through the greasy intestines) of New York:

Q: I like to wear AirPods and watch The Mindy Project while walking down some of the busiest streets in America. Should I weave in a discernible pattern, or stagger my steps randomly?

A: I vote for random, and as herky-jerky as possible. People don’t have enough excitement and unpredictability in their lives and who knows—you might finally meet that someone special!

Thanks. I have just one follow-up: Should I turn my head and look or do anything that might give me any indication as to what’s going on around me before stepping into traffic and crossing the street?

A: Now why on earth would you do that?

Q: I’m 72, an avid cyclist, and enjoy sticking the nose of my bike into crossing traffic when they have the green light. Is a helmet REALLY necessary?

A: It’s only going to needlessly protect the one non-functioning part of your geriatric backside. By the way, love the high-visibility vest. Is that so the cars have a better vision of what they’re trying to hit? Are you doing this on purpose? I’ve brought my bicycle onto the hood of a car with me before and trust me, you do not want to go out like that.

Q: Sometimes I’m walking down the sidewalk, totally minding my business, and a person coming the other way just starts walking towards me, until I have to move in a somewhat drastic fashion to avoid hitting them. It’s like I’m magnetic. And it’s happening all the time, multiple times a day. What is going on? Am I crazy?

A: You’re not crazy. But you are also not magnetic. That WOULD be insane, That would mean that the people walking toward you are made of iron or steel, instead of some other much lighter metal.

There does seem to be a slightly confrontational nature to walking around here sometimes. It’s like people—already short on space—are trying to claim a portion of the sidewalk, and if they’ve already got a stretch then they’re eager to take yours. I can’t explain it. But I have found that if I start growling, they tend to back away.

Q: Is that, like, the 17th time we’ve heard “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough” today?

A: Official song of NYC, baby! I get that sometimes great art comes from terrible monsters, and that it can be hard to stop appreciating that art. But it’s like the entire city is thumbing its nose at the idea that Michael Jackson’s bio needs a little bit of a rewrite. Moving on…

Q: Those motor scooters everyone’s so wild about look downright scary. Maybe we shouldn’t ride them.

Not a question, but you’re right. Let’s walk. Only I’m going to be on my phone, watching The Mindy Project, so you’re going to need to be on the lookout for all the motorized Schwinn mountainbikes jumping the curb and careening our way. They belong to food delivery people, and those people do not give one single shit about human life—not theirs, and certainly not ours.

Q: I feel like we’re being tucked inside someone’s armpit down here. Why is it so freaking hot in this subway?

A: Oh, it’s not just this one—it’s all of ‘em. But here’s the thing: it’s actually a city-wide humanitarian effort. We all pitch in a couple bucks a month to pay the heating bill to keep these underground passages warm enough so that the gators who live down here are at the optimal temperature for moving around and procreating. New York’s transit authority is actually responsible for the world’s most successful large reptile breeding program. You’re welcome, America.

Q: This train is too crowded. We’re going to have to stand, and I’m worried I’ll fall into someone. What do I hold on to?

A: If you’re tall enough, the ceiling. It’s the only thing that hasn’t been held/leaned on/licked by at least 3000 people already today. If you’re not, I recommend holding onto any of the rails with your right hand, and a bottle of hand sanitizer with your left.

You know what? Here: Just wrap an arm around me. I’ve got us.

This hand was already dirty anyway.

ASK A STRAY DAD 6:

ON BOOZY STEPDADS

Question: I’m a stepfather to three adolescents. Am I drinking enough?

Answer: Probably not, according to every book, movie or television show I’ve ever seen. But let’s check via this handy quiz I pulled off the internet*, shall we?

Scenario 1: You are having a nice dinner with your new family. Your middle stepson has a friend over, from his soccer team. (You’d prefer to think of him simply as your son, but when you met him he weighed 120 pounds—hardly a newborn—and so, for clarity’s sake, we’re going to stick to the legally correct terms.) You have a crystal highball glass in front of you. Is it:

1) Half full

2) Half empty

3) Half empty, but it’s your third so who the hell cares anymore; she’ll fix you another one once these rugrats are sent to their rooms.

4) About to be thrown at the wall because one of the boys snickered and you’re sure it was that little shit Braden, who apparently finds it really damn funny that you’re wobbling a little and called asked if someone could pass the “pashed motatoes” and just tried to cut your chicken with the back side of your spoon.

Scenario 2: You are waiting on the front porch for the oldest kid, 17, to come home. It’s 9 minutes past curfew when he strolls up, acting like it’s no big deal. And normally it wouldn’t be, but tonight it is because:

1) You drank the last can of beer from the fridge hours ago and he was supposed to pick some up for you,

2) You have an entire sixer in you, have been doing a lot of thinking, and figure it’s high time he learned a thing or two about respect,

3) You just wet your pants and need someone—HELL NO, ANYONE BUT HIS MOTHER—to go fetch you a fresh, dry pair from under the bed.

4) You’re buried beneath a pile of cans so deep that if he doesn’t pull you out immediately you’re going to suffocate.

Scenario 3: It’s your 11-year old’s elementary school band concert. She plays the saxophone. Her band played first, and had only one song—Hot Cross Buns, natch—though the program clearly states that you are obligated to stay through the entire show. You are staying hydrated by sipping from a flask filled with:

1) A single-origin Pinot Noir

2) 112-proof barrel-aged bourbon, neat

3) Expired rubbing alcohol

4) Rhino tranquilizers, dissolved in a Moldovan vodka whose bottle is shaped like a bundle of dynamite.

Scenario 4: Your wife has (rightly) thrown you out of the house, due to you being an immediate and ever-present danger to yourself and, more importantly, your family. You:

1) Walk around all night until you sober up; then return home, solemn and humble, vowing to get yourself clean.

2) Find the nearest bar in which to drown your sorrows. Who gives a shit that it’s not open at 2:47AM; that’s why God invented bricks.

3) Sneak back into your own house, grab the secret stash of moonshine you’ve been distilling in the basement, and set forth to live among the fairies and hobgoblins you’ve been spotting around the neighborhood more and more often of late.

4) Can’t remember, frankly. You blacked out hours ago. Last thing you remember you were having a totally pleasant dinner, and that midfielder from Michael’s soccer team was there, and you had that highball of whiskey in your hand, and…

Congratulations on making it this far with a BAC as high as yours. Now: Add up the corresponding numbers to each of your answers. If the total’s anything less than 14, it’s time to pick up that bottle and goose that liver of yours and really commit to living that Stepdad Life. AmIright, guys?

At least, that seems to be the unseemly role we parental outcasts were cast to play. Even in something so innocuous as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Who knew there would be villains in Boyhood? Stepdads, that’s who. Man, had I been excited to see that movie. After years of lounging in icebox-cold multiplexes watching nothing but CGI’d-down-to-their-nutsacks superhero movies and Johnny Depp swashbuckling his own legacy into dust, here was an honest-to-god film whose preview spoke to me. And it said, “This kid’s not going to do a whole lot in the 12 years we spent filming him, and you’re going to love it.”

But by the time we walked out, I was in lockstep with my oldest stepson’s assertion that the movie was kinda bullshit. Not for his reasons—he, an aspiring actor, couldn’t believe that a kid who seemed unwilling to put forth any sort of effort was gifted a role in an Oscar-nominated film seemingly based solely on living within a three-minute bike ride of the set. No: while I was fine with blank expressions, and truly appreciated a scene where two teenagers can drive recklessly down highways and NOT have their car overturned unexpectedly by a) a semi-truck, or b) an alien, or c) an alien that can transform from a semi-truck into a robot, I had a real problem with the men Patricia Arquette continued to pick as horribly misshapen father figures to her children.

“She has terrible taste in men,” I whispered to my wife.

“Shhhhh,” she replied.

“YOU would’ve seen the signs,” I said, a little louder. “He’s making an ass of himself.”

My wife patted the top of my hand, turned her face back to the screen, and smiled.

“Oh, sure. I see.” I grabbed another handful of popcorn. “But we’re talking about this later.”

I had never thought much about the typecast stepdad-as-villain role before I turned 33. But once I fell in love with a mother of three children, stepdaddery and its accompanying stigma became inevitable. The kids were 14, 10 and 8 at the time, positive that their family of four contained the exact right number of humans, and that it was best if things stayed that way. They fought like hell against making any of this feel normal or easy. Still, Heidi and I weren’t about to be deterred, and so just under 18 months after we started dating, I married into the archetype, becoming the first step-dad I knew. (That’s a dirty word around our house—their mom would rather they refer to me as anything other than that, though thankfully after a little bit of awkward tongue-twisting everyone just settled on my real name.)

I’d already read enough mid-century literature to know that we, as a subspecies, got a bad rap. But in a case of Baader-Meinhof phenomenon gone rampant, once I became one all I saw were the worst kind of examples. Not in real life, of course; out on the street it’s impossible to tell which luggage-lugging lug is a late-to-the-party father figure and which one’s the real deal. But soon it became apparent every guy who walked onto a screen and into some kid’s life was going to abuse a substance, or that child, or probably both. Boyhood was the last straw. Boyhood couldn’t even stop at one liquored-up putz; they had to throw in multiples for the poor woman to fall for, and the poor son and daughter to endure. Boyhood made Ethan Hawke—ETHAN FREAKING HAWKE!—the sane, stable heroic male role model of the movie. It was enough to make a stepfather give up booze entirely.

Over a whiskey soda at dinner that night I continued my list of grievances against the way men of my ilk (or, rather, circumstance) were eternally and incessantly portrayed. I swore up and down there had to be more good guys helping raise some other dad’s kids than there were alcoholic monsters of irrational anger. I argued that the archetype was dead, or at least incapacitated; that people these days knew better; and that we needed better examples shown on screen, so people didn’t get the wrong idea.

Boyhood came out five years ago. I’m still waiting.

My kids and I—and they are my kids, not in terms of I possess them but rather I will defend them with my own life if it ever comes to that, and in addition I’m not about to correct anyone who tells me how much they look like me—have come a long way since we began together. It was to be expected. It was not always easy; that, too, was to be expected. I might not have been a drunk deadbeat when they met me. But I had a lot to learn about parenting, and the three of them pushed me into that deep end while clinging to my neck. I needed to learn how to breathe through my frustration and listen to them, even when they didn’t have a lot to say. How to reserve judgment, start from a place of trust, give them the benefit of the doubt, recognize that my childhood did not in any way match theirs. They, in turn, needed to understand that I wasn’t out to get them.

It took FOREVER, or at least it felt like it.

But I’m so glad that I didn’t try to coat my brain with liquor just to get around the bumps. (Although I will admit: there were times when I was tempted.)

These days, when B is home from work and I’m still awake and roaming tight laps around the tiny apartment we share, I pour us both a drink—one single drink—and we sit and chew over our wins and losses on the day together. We talk music, politics, movies, and of course the family that we both somehow found ourselves in. And then the glasses go in the dishwasher and we say goodnight and I call his mother and tell her how much I miss her—but that yes, her husband and her son are both doing well. It feels good to say that aloud without it containing so much as a thread of fabrication. And though it might sound a bit crass, it warms my heart nearly as much to know that, after almost 10 years around each other, my kid and I are both finally old enough to drink.

To all my fellow step-dads out there: Stay sane, and (mostly) sober. We’ll get through this—with or without Hollywood.

Next time: Surviving air travel!

*This is a lie. The quiz was a complete fabrication. Though anyone else is now free to pull it off the internet, so I guess there’s that.

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