“Hit me”: Jay, Wally, and “The Tree of Life”

Last week I did something I haven’t done in two years and probably won’t do again for two more: I went to see a movie without Caroline.  (Basically, if I’m going to ask her to take a bullet/ put both boys to bed it usually has to be for something that I can’t do just as easily two months later on Netflix.)

The flick was “The Tree of Life,” which is only the fifth movie the legendary director Terrence Malick has made in the last 38 years, and which has been hyped in some quarters as just about the greatest artistic achievement in the history of film.  I went to see it partly for the hype, partly because my cinephile pal Andrew told me he’d disown me if I didn’t, but even more because “Tree of Life” concerns a topic that I think about a lot these days.

Brad Pitt plays Mr. O’Brien, a strict, hard-driving dad in a small Texas town in the 1950s.  He wants his two sons to be tough—to grow up to have the grit to bend the world to their desires—and he’s especially demanding of his oldest son, Jack.  He hounds Jack into performing menial tasks, like weeding the lawn or closing the screen door gently, with scrupulous perfection.  And in the most widely replayed scene from the movie he challenges Jack to prove his mettle by punching him in the face.  “Hit me, hit me,” he says, slapping his chin.  When Jack can’t bring himself to do it, his father bats him humiliatingly to the ground.

Not surprisingly, Jack grows to hate his father.  As a young child he’s able to bear his father’s will, but as he grows into adolescence he comes to resent his domination.  In one ominous scene an emerging Jack stands over his father as he lies on the ground fixing a car.  We hear him think, “Please kill him. Let him die.”

I saw the movie with two friends and we all agreed that we’ve never seen a movie capture the sensations and perspectives of childhood better than “Tree of Life” does.  But we also had our separate reasons for sitting rapt for two hours. One friend said afterwards that Brad Pitt’s character had had him thinking about his childhood growing up with a stern Lebanese-immigrant father who’d once told him and his younger brother, when they were still in elementary school, “After your mother and I are dead you’ll only have each other.”

For my part, I spent the entire movie thinking about Jay.

I haven’t figured out yet how strong a presence I want to be in his life.  Two nights ago Jay had a tantrum in the living room just before bed.  After ten minutes of failed coaxing I hoisted him, kicking and screaming, off to bed.  On the short walk to his room he cried out, “Noooo Daaady, noooo,” in a voice that would have made you think I was making him watch as, one at a time, I set his toys on fire.

Even as I was carrying Jay off to bed I was thinking about how intense an experience this must be for him.  Here he was, being forced to do the one thing in the world he least wanted to do, by this overwhelming force of a person called his Dad with whom, once he gets a good grip on you, it’s all over.  It’s a necessary role sometimes when you’re raising a toddler, but it’s not one I’m completely comfortable with.

Well before Jay was born, before Caroline and I even knew the sex of the child we’d have, there was a part of me that hoped we’d have a girl.  A girl, I thought, would mean a simple relationship: I’d tell her how pretty she was, be a little overprotective when she was a teenager, and walk her down the aisle when she was an adult, grinning the whole way.

But a son is a more complicated thing.  Jay will be taking a lot of his cues about how—and how not—to live his life from me, and I don’t have complete confidence that either a) I’ll give him the right cues; or b) that he’ll know how to read them. I know there will come a day when he gets around to judging me and the job I did raising him.  I can only hope that by that point I’ll have taught him at least what it means to be compassionate.

At the same time, I like that there’s no sidestepping what it means to be a father.  There is a part of my personality that prefers to sit back rather than act under conditions of uncertainty—to do nothing instead of taking the chance that I’ll do the wrong thing.  But when it comes to raising a child there’s no sitting back, no waiting until later to figure it out.  Every day Jay wakes up and Caroline and I go live again, whether or not we know our lines.

Under these conditions the best I can think to do is be aware of how big an impact my actions have on Jay and Wally, and to think and reflect and try and get better each day at being a dad, while at same time keeping in mind that one day they might make a movie about me.

From father to son: “We’ll see how you do”

In writing about Monday night’s misadventures with Jay, I was reminded of the best thumping I ever received growing up.  I was probably six or seven at the time and my dad had just finished repainting the walls in the bedroom I shared with my sister.  All weekend long I’d watched him work as he’d sanded, taped, primed, painted.  We had around a painter’s cap that we’d gotten free at the hardware store and I wore it as I followed on his heels, trying to be helpful.

By Saturday night the painting was finished, and I woke up early Sunday morning excited to re-hang the pictures we’d taken down a few days earlier.  I got out a hammer and nails and set to work.  I wasn’t particularly coordinated, so I missed the nail head as often as I hit it.  Each missed blow sent chips of fresh paint and plaster flying off the wall, but I was so excited to show my dad that I’d re-hung the pictures by myself that I pressed on anyway, oblivious to the damage I was doing.

My bedroom shared a wall with my parents’ room, so my dad heard what was going on before he saw it.  I imagine him sitting up in bed, groggy at first, and then suddenly wide awake as he realized what was going on.  By the time he’d made it down the hall to my room he’d worked up a pretty good fury, the memory of which is still strong enough to conjure a faint stinging sensation on my behind.

This story comes up from time to time in our family conversations.  We always tell it in a lighthearted way, as one among many episodes from childhood in which things didn’t go quite the way we would have liked.  I can tell, though, that I’m more at ease with the memory of that spanking than my dad is, in the same way that Jay didn’t wake up yesterday morning needing to write about the scolding he’d received the night before but I did.

One of the unexpected pleasures of growing up is that it provides you with experiences to understand your parents a little better.  Through my mid-twenties my understanding of my parents was limited to what I’d seen them do right in front of me.  But the more experience we gain in life the greater ability we develop to imagine our parents’ lives during the long periods when they are off-screen in our memories.

So now I don’t just see my dad entering my bedroom furious at me for what I’d done to the wall; I imagine him in the moments just before he comes into view: tired, weary before the task of raising three small children, fighting to launch a business and pay a mortgage and sustain a marriage, accompanied by thoughts and memories all his own.  In that light, I see the ensuing spanking as more, or less, or something different than simply a grievous injustice.

Which reminds me of one more little story, told to me by a friend recently.  Almost forty years ago he was in his late-twenties, working for his dad, and about to become a father.  One day on the way home from work my friend started getting on his dad for always favoring his older brother.  In response his dad turned to him and said, “We’ll see how you do.”

A reminder that now we’re playing for real money

Jay was five-weeks-old the first time I remember cursing in front of him.  I was carrying him on my chest while I did the dishes after dinner when I dropped a glass in the sink.  “Fuck,” I yelled, not six inches from his little newborn ears.

Right afterward I felt ashamed: Since becoming a father it had seemed important to me to try to be a better person and in that moment I had failed.  But a second later I was soothed by the thought that Jay was too young to have registered my temper tantrum (or at least he was too young to let me know that he’d registered it).  He wasn’t going to ape the word back at me and he wasn’t going to cast me a glance that said a hero had just fallen in his eyes. He just slumbered on all the same against my chest, and I exhaled like a man who’d managed to go to the bathroom behind a bush without anyone seeing him.

You could get away with a lot in front of this guy...

In some ways, the first year-plus of Jay’s life felt like a kind of dry run for the years ahead when the way I act with and around Jay is going to carry a lot more consequence.  During that first year, whenever I’d lose my temper in front of him, or Caroline and I would have a tense exchange, or I’d fail trying to do something cool like juggle two apples and a banana, I’d think to myself: By the time Jay is old enough to really be paying attention I’ll have all the kinks worked out.

Well, it hasn’t worked out that way of course.  I still occasionally curse in front of Jay even though I know that he has a two-year-old’s gift for seizing on the one word in a sentence I’d rather he forget.  As in, yesterday morning a slice of bread got caught in our toaster as I was making breakfast and I exclaimed, “Piece of shit.”  Jay didn’t repeat “piece” over and over again—he said, “shit,” perfectly annunciating the “t” at the end, all the way to school.

...but not so much in front of him

The bigger challenge recently, though, is not what I say in front of him—it’s how I act towards him.  All told an infant as an easy kind of person to conduct a relationship with: They need you to rock and coo and make silly faces in front of them, but they don’t require (or demand) any particularly nuanced type of interaction.

Toddlers, however, are a different story.  By naptime on any given day Jay has already exhibited a range of emotions to match any adult’s.  He’ll be alternately elated, frustrated, hyper, deliberately annoying, tired, bored, charming and wary.  It’s up to me and Caroline to calibrate our behavior to Jay’s emotional state, all the while pressing ahead with things that need to get done in a day like brushing his teeth, changing his diaper, making dinner, etc.

And sometimes I miss the mark.

Last night after dinner I was in a bad mood for reasons that seem trivial when they’re listed out, and which of course at no point meant anything to Jay: It was hot in our apartment, Wally was crying on the bed, a bag of really foul trash had just split open as I’d brought it out to the curb, and I couldn’t find the key to my neighbor’s house which I needed because I’d agreed to take out his trash too while he’s on vacation in Greece.

As I searched through my desk drawers for the key, Jay—who was in a fragile mood of his own—decided to climb up on a chair to retrieve a notebook which was buried beneath a stack of papers.  As he pulled on the notebook the papers flew everywhere and in that moment it felt like one more suboptimal event than I could handle.  I grabbed Jay beneath the arms and pulled him off the chair.  “I told you not to climb up there,” I said as I angrily deposited him on the floor. For a second Jay was stunned.  Then his face broke.   I grabbed my neighbor’s keys and headed out the door as the first wail escaped from his trembling open mouth.  When I came back a few minutes later Caroline was trying to comfort Jay, who was struggling to tell her between each heaving breath that he’d only wanted the notebook so that he could draw.

Caroline put Jay to sleep and for the next couple hours I felt about one-inch tall.  Then just as Caroline and I were getting ready for bed Jay woke up crying in his crib.  I went in to comfort him, eager to atone for the way our day had ended.  He lay on his stomach, sniffling into his crib sheet, as I patted him on the back and told him everything was okay.  Eventually his breathing began to slow.  Quietly I crept out of his room.  As I closed the door behind me I thought what maybe is an obvious thought:  Jay has gone completely live, and everything I do around him counts.

No $200k playhouse to call his own

Jay is only two-years-old but already he’s missed out on a lot: No freshly painted nursery waiting for him when he was born (in fact, there was no nursery at all in our 1br apartment), no mobile above his crib, no swim lessons or music classes or yoga instruction, no trip to Sesame Place, no fun or joy or light in his life whatsoever.

And now, add to the list: No $200k playhouse with a dedicated Popsicle freezer in the backyard he doesn’t have. The New York Times ran a story last week about the increasing popularity among the well-to-do of high end club houses for kids.  It featured a Texas oil exec and his Playboy pinup wife who splashed out for a two-story Cape Cod playhouse—built as a scale replica of the family’s McMansion—for their four-year-old daughter Sinclair.

It’s easy of course to ridicule such over the top consumption—and I imagine even the most well-equipped kiddie chalet still has a hard time competing with Mario Kart.  (Unless of course Mario Kart is played inside the chalet, in which case, WOW.) At the same time, I’d be deceiving myself if I didn’t admit that my very first reaction to the story was: “Man, wouldn’t Jay love one of those.”

An uncle’s last trip to Philadelphia

My brother Ryan and his wife Allison were the first people who ever babysat Jay.  In September 2009, when Jay was three-months old, Caroline and I left him with them while we went off to a wedding.  Before I walked out the door I remember telling my brother that if all else failed, he could always put Jay in the Baby Bjorn and take him for a walk.  “It puts him to sleep every time.”

That night, of course, it didn’t. After the walk had failed Ryan decided to throw his body at the problem, commencing to march Jay up and down the five flights of stairs in their building.  Jay fell asleep just before Ryan’s quads gave out, but as he nodded off he hit his head on Ryan’s shoulder blade, setting off another round of wailing. When Caroline and I returned hours later, Ryan looked like he’d been trampled by a pack of baby monkeys.  I’m pretty sure the trauma of the evening set back his childbearing desires at least half-a-decade.

I thought of this yesterday morning as I waited for Ryan and Allison to arrive in Philadelphia on the bus down from New York.  Over the five years we’ve lived in Philadelphia they’ve made the trip often.  They were the first people from my family to see Jay after he was born, and more recently they’ve become Jay’s favorite visitors.  When we walk around the city and he spies a silver Ford he calls out, “Ramen and Allie’s car,” recalling the rental they drove to Maine this summer.  It’s always with a touch of sadness that I tell him that though the car might look like theirs, they’re not actually here.

This trip was to be their last to Philadelphia, at least while we’re living here: On August 19th we’re moving to Ann Arbor, where Caroline has a research job at the university.  We’d have signed up for 30 more years in Philadelphia if we could, so the move is bittersweet—not least of all because it puts half-a-continent between us and the most important people in our lives.

Say yes to roasted pig with broccoli rabe and sharp provolone

But such melancholic thoughts were out of view when Ryan and Allison arrived on our front stoop a little before noon.  I had in mind that we’d all walk over to the Italian Market for sandwiches at Paesano’s.  The heat, though, was more than I reckoned, and by the time we arrived 15 blocks later at the un-air conditioned sandwich shop we were staggering. We shared the Paesano (beef brisket, sharp provolone, fried egg), and the Arista (whole roasted suckling pig, broccoli rabe).  The grease from it all combined with the humidity to put a happy sheen on our faces.  All might have been perfect but for Jay, who was just tall enough to reach the levers on the soda machine and was little persuaded by the argument: we haven’t paid for that.

A nice thing about having Ryan visit as often as he has is that there’s no pressure to do anything spectacular with the time.  After lunch we retreated home in a cab and cranked the AC in our apartment.  Last time they visited we inaugurated a tradition of taking a mid-afternoon siesta, which we reprised yesterday.  As I nodded off to sleep I thought to myself, “Wouldn’t it be nice if more social occasions involved a nap…”

There was no urgency to their trip until the end.  As they gathered their things to leave I said to Ryan, “We’ll see you again in…”  And then I realized how long it might be.  Not over Labor Day because we’ll be in Michigan.  Not over Thanksgiving because we’ll be with our spouses’ families.  It was hard to believe, in the midst of a day that felt so familiar, that we might not see each other again until Christmas.

Outside on the curb Ryan and I held our last hug a little longer than we usually do.  As he and Allison pulled away in a taxi I walked back upstairs into our apartment.  Down the hall I could see Caroline, Jay and Wally playing on the bed, while at the same time I was still thinking about how an entire season would pass before I saw Ryan again.  In a moment of confusion my thought about Ryan attached to the image of my family on the bed: I saw Caroline, Jay and Wally as if it were going to be a long time before I saw them again, too.  But then I remembered that we are all going to Michigan, and I understood that there’s almost no sadness I can’t withstand as long as the four of us are together.