I had my first child when I was 33 years old. For reasons that merit socioeconomic scrutiny beyond my meager abilities, this put me several years ahead of my peers. Logically, when my friends and colleagues finally accepted their responsibility and commenced to repopulate the globe, they had questions. Parenting is tough stuff—it's only logical to inquire of other parents: How must we reckon with the financial deprivation and somnological complexities? The aural and olfactory assaults? The uncertainties and errors? The ruthless challenge of loving without condition and beyond ourselves? Parents know these things. We are large, to batter and bruise Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself," we contain multitudes. Or if not quite that, we surely can be relied on for a soothing bromide or two, direction in purchasing bargain-price diapers, the best vodou incantation to lull a child to bed.
Less logically, they asked me. What did I know? Nothing. What did anyone know? About the same. Yet they asked, and asked, usually at work, and some even seemed to want an answer, and none cared at all that they were intruding on my opportunities to catnap at my desk over a copy of the Wall Street Journal, or to sink blissfully into the tedium of my work. So I'd answer. Gave my best and only advice, or at least the one that always came to mind.
"Your kid wakes up crying at night or from a nap? Good thing. Means they're breathing." I'd pause, for effect, and to let the plumbless genius of such counsel be absorbed. "See, thing is, you know what you're gonna want to do when that happens? Kid's screaming five flavors of bloody murder, and you're so stupid from lack of sleep that you couldn't organize zipping your fly?"
Imagine, at this stage, a reflexive crotch check from my would-be procreative protégé.
"Gonna wanna run like hell and pick the thing up. The little person. The child. Your child. Natural urge. Alert claxons going off like crazy. Paternal instinct at play. Maybe you're a quiet freak. Totally normal. Don't do that."
I'd stop then and return to work, which really meant planning lunch. I was so brain dead in those years that the difference between the two was largely ceremonial. Most of my soon-to-be parents would retreat in befuddlement. Was I joking? Could I possibly, after all these years working together, truly be as dumb as I looked? Was it some hidden insult, some stab of condescension that they would only comprehend after the birth?
The heartier ones (or those with less to do) would stand their ground. Don't do that? Don't do that? What kinda advice is that? What should I do, then?
For them, I'd proffer this choice morsel of fatherly knowledge:
"Walk," I'd say. "Just walk."
If—when—they seemed skeptical, I'd reassure them.
"Best thing. Gold-plated. Guaranteed. Take it to the bank."
Funny thing is that I wish someone had given me this advice before the birth of my son. His mother and I ran like starved maniacs who've burgled a cask of beer and a large pepperoni pizza. We ran, we reacted, we jerked and sprinted and worried and trembled with anxiety and nameless fears and burdened chagrin. Far less so with my subsequent charges, as is only natural, and thankfully, my son has turned out fine, in my estimation. But I'd have been happier if I'd have thought of it before he came. Would have been good advice.
I say this despite its towering obviousness and thudding stupidity. Yet I stand by it, stupid and true, and like most advice, useful in its small way and easily ignored. Much like the wisdom offered by Frank Bruni.