Soon after moving to my current home in a northern suburb of Manhattan, I noticed an older, Asian man who took the same train as me each morning. He was probably in his early sixties, and, aware of how inappropriate the moniker was, I nonetheless began to think of him as (and, in conversations with my wife, call him) the Zen master. I had no idea if he was Japanese, but he looked a bit like Haruki Murakami’s author photos, and he dressed the way I’d expect a Japanese businessman to dress, in impeccably tailored suits, polished wingtips, and tightly knotted ties. His hair always looked like it had just been cut, and his cheeks were as smooth as a child’s. He carried a brown leather briefcase that was so thin, I wouldn’t be surprised if it contained nothing at all and, instead, was just part of his outfit.
I was fascinated by the Zen master. His posture was perfect, his gait looked almost like a dance, and he was one of the few people on the train platform not wearing earbuds or engaged in idle conversation with another passenger. He simply stood, statue-like, holding his slender briefcase’s handle with both hands, in what appeared to me as a morning meditation ritual. He turned away from the tracks so that he could look out onto the Hudson River, and his eyes remained fixed in a blank stare until the train arrived. I never had the courage to stand near him or sit in the same car, but I copied the route he took to our train platform, a short walk over the bridge behind the station’s cafe, rather than cutting through the café like most commuters rushing to their trains. Some mornings I picked up my walk so that I was no more than a second or two behind him, filling his footsteps with my own, trying to appear as relaxed and self-assured as the Zen master.
“Why are you so obsessed with him?” my wife asked.
“Because he seems so content,” I answered. “He has life figured out.”
“Based on his clothes?” she said. “You have no idea what happens to him after he gets on the train.”
I sometimes saw him on the weekends, buying vegetables at our Saturday farmers market, or walking with his wife on the Old Croton Aqueduct trails that run through our town. He was dressed more casually but no less flawlessly. In the summer, his shorts were neatly pressed with razor-sharp creases, and he tucked in his Lacoste tennis shirts in a way that flattered his slight frame. In the colder months, he favored wool pants and cashmere sweaters and a Paddington Bear-style overcoat. My wife thought he and his wife were adorable. I thought they should be our role models.
“They don’t have the same life that we have,” she countered. “Their kids are probably all grown up and out of the house. They’re not worrying about stupid shit like whether we need to bring diapers or wipes into the daycare.”
She was right. I knew nothing about them. They could be one of those sad, older couples who never had children or, just as bad, whose children grew up and moved away and barely stayed in touch. I doubted it, though. The Zen master hardly smiled, but he never frowned, and when I saw him and his wife walking on the trails, they held hands and talked in hushed conversations that reflected intimacy rather than despondency. Their strides were steady and confident. At some point, the Zen master stopped taking my train, and when I took the occasional later train, I didn’t see him either. I still spotted him and his wife around town on the weekends, so I surmised he must have retired. Good for him, I thought, he deserves to retire.
After the Zen master’s presumed retirement, my fascination turned to another commuter – actually two commuters, a husband and wife who must have just moved to our town. I first noticed them not at the train station but in the parking lot of our daycare, carrying in their infant daughter in her car seat. They both had platinum blonde hair, unashamedly processed and replete with hair product. The man kept his hair neat on the sides and spiky on top, while the woman had the kind of short, cropped hair that feathered out at the bottom in the style favored by so many cable news correspondents. Each had tattoos running along their exposed arms: the man’s an alternating series of words and black rectangles that looked like a redacted document and evoked some form of political protest, the woman’s a more elaborate, rainbow-colored sleeve that included a waterfall, a unicorn, and possibly Adam and Eve (it might also have been a naked depiction of she and her husband pre-hair product). They drove a Volkswagen Golf, my first and still-favorite car, a compact little vehicle that got great gas mileage and could fit into any conceivable parking space. When they emerged from the daycare minutes later, now unburdened by their child, they each pulled out e-cigarettes before getting back into their car.
I started spotting them at the train station after that morning, puffing on their e-cigarettes, drinking beverages out of sleek, hot-and-cold-accommodating thermoses, and engaged in what seemed like the most intense and enjoyable conversations. They stared into each other’s eyes, gesticulated manically, laughed all the time, and, every few sentences, one would reach out and touch the other on the bicep or the wrist or the hand, to punctuate a remark with this unspoken gesture of “I love you.” I watched them and wondered why they were so carefree. I wondered what jobs awaited them at the end of their train rides, what kinds of evenings they spent after returning to our town, picking up their little girl, and getting her into her crib for the night.
I’ve been doing this kind of spying more and more, and not just on old Asian businessmen and young hipster couples, although these are two instances in which my surveillance went beyond just a cross-sectional analysis. Every time I take my kids to the park or the pool or the library, I watch other parents and do some sort of admittedly superficial calculus of their lives. Do they look happy? Do their kids look happy? Is there obvious affection between the mom and the dad (or the mom and the mom in some instances)? How do the parents react to the kids’ tantrums? What kinds of snacks do they bring, are their kids still in diapers, and how successful are they in getting an older sibling to play with a younger sibling? Do they seem better equipped at all of this – at life – than I am?
These questions have influenced my reading choices. In the last year, I’ve turned to a number of parenting books, desperately searching for answers behind their cover images of babies and teddy bears and moms down on their knees tying their kids’ shoes. My experience with these books, unfortunately, follow a similar pattern. The introduction and opening chapters suck me in by presenting an ideal world of thriving children and confident parents, a promised life of tantrum-free mornings and easy bedtimes. The remaining chapters provide strategies to achieve these aims, utilizing case examples that do not accurately represent my family and touting techniques that seem impossible for my home. I consistently ask myself, as I take out my phone to photograph a page and capture some important piece of parenting advice, whether my family is too fucked up already for anything to work, and this question – above all the questions I’ve been posing myself – is the most frightening of all.
So I must admit that I picked up Steven Church’s new essay collection, I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear, and Fatherhood, based entirely on the last three words of its title. I wanted to read someone else’s thoughts on fear and fatherhood, and I wanted to read them in any venue other than a parenting book. In the preface to this collection, an essay entitled “Against Clarity,” Church recalls the time a visiting writer lectured his graduate school class on the art of nonfiction and proclaimed that nobody should be allowed to write memoirs or personal essays before they’ve reached the age of 45 and achieved “clarity.” Church, now 46 and having already authored five books before I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part, jokes about whether this promised clarity will ever show up for him. “Most of the time, I hope that it never comes and that life continues to be a crazy chaotic mess of surprises, that it is consistently unpredictable, and I thus have reason to continue writing.” Recalling the visiting writer’s advice, though, still irritates him despite his own successes as a writer. Not necessarily the age proscription but rather “that false promise of clarity,” as if any writer, any human, could really figure things out. This is the same kind of irritation I feel when I read a parenting book or, I must confess, when I see ostensibly happy families skipping around the local playground.
Fear permeates Church’s new book, even in the essays that harken back to his pre-parenting life, when he’s working as a tour guide at the Country Boy Gold Mine in Breckenridge, Colorado and Meteor Crater in Flagstaff, Arizona. He worries about his physical safety – could the mine cave in on him at any point, for example – and he worries about his emotional stability – is he marrying the right woman, and has he chosen the right profession. These anxieties come to a head in the collection’s title essay, in which Church and his wife, trying to cool off during a dreadful Colorado heat wave, go to a sort-of-off-limits swimming area and witness the drowning of a young boy. The essay jumps back and forth in time while Church and his swimming mates dive into deep waters to find the missing boy: back to the death of Church’s teenage brother in a car crash, and forward to Church’s eventual fear of water when he has a son to protect from drowning hazards. Professional rescue workers finally arrive at the scene and drag up the dead boy’s body. Church sees his brother’s face on the boy, and it’s hard not to think he’ll eventually, when recalling this episode in future years, see his own children’s faces on that dead boy, too.
Escape is not the answer to these anxieties. In “Into the Mild,” Church moves his family (at the time, it’s he, his wife, and their infant son) out of the university town of Fort Collins and into a remote cabin on the Cache le Poudre River. He hears stories about mountain lion attacks in the area and becomes obsessed with the threat these animals pose to him and his family. He fantasizes about defending his son against a mountain lion attack, conquering the beast after a lengthy, bloody battle. “Thus are the narratives of fatherhood,” he realizes. “Since fear is primarily psychological phenomena and danger often a matter of interpretation, I wondered if imagination, if storytelling and essaying, was the best defense I could put up for my family.”
In “Bright Orange Fever,” Church and his wife visit a New York City under “orange alert” shortly after 9/11. They stay in an apartment just a block away from Ground Zero. “The only fear I felt was more a matter of anxiety about being away from our son,” Church writes about their decision not to bring a child on this potentially dangerous vacation. New York turns out to be safe, of course, and he regrets leaving the boy behind, losing the chance to teach him about the emptiness of some of our fears. “In many ways, [children] are wholly incapable of protecting themselves. They are innocent and helpless. That’s part of what defines them as children and what defines my life now as a parent. I’m responsible for protecting this innocence and helplessness but also for teaching my children how to leave it behind.”
Back home in Colorado, his neighbors brag about not locking their doors. “It’s not as if the physical action of locking a door and carrying a key was so unbelievably taxing that a normal person couldn’t handle it,” he writes, “so clearly it was a more symbolic inaction than anything else.” He brays against this “symbolic rejection of fear,” pointing out the hollowness of adults deciding that they’re safe. Indeed, every essay in this book is, in some way, an embrace of fear or, in the very least, an embrace of the effort to acknowledge fear. For Church, this effort is rooted in his writing, which he views as an exercise in self-doubt and exploration rather than, as discussed in his book’s preface, a declaration of clarity. This philosophy aligns with the advice I’ve seen in parenting books about encouraging children to confront their fears via storytelling, whether in the form of traditional tales (“Once upon a time there was a little girl who was afraid of dogs”) or artwork or imaginative play.
In one of the last essays of I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part, entitled “Five Early Lessons in Parenting,” Church recalls a conversation he had with his son after watching The Incredibles and its scene with Mr. Incredible lifting train cars like dumbbells for exercise. Church asks his son if he thinks Daddy could life a train car, too.
“Yeah,” he said, and with no prompting at all from me, “‘Cause you’re a superhero.” I just let that one settle in for a while. I let it linger in the rarefied air of our minivan. Then I repeated the story over and over again, telling friends and even strangers. But the more I told it, the more self-conscious I became, the more aware of my own shortcomings as a potential superhero. I have bad knees and bad ankles. My shoulder is wrecked. I’m lactose intolerant. . . I’m glad I didn’t ruin the moment, but part of me thinks I should have politely informed him that I am no caped crusader. I’m a regular guy who makes bad choices sometimes, and he probably shouldn’t depend on my superpowers to protect him from harm.
This is the challenge of being a “woke dad,” if I may crib from one of the more annoying parenting books I’ve recently read. Sharing our own insecurities with our children is supposed to be a way to model emotional maturity. You see, Daddy also gets scared, and this is how he manages those fears.
Parenting, like writing, is an exercise in self-doubt and exploration, but often this must be a solitary exercise. Church can’t share his memoirs and personal essays with a toddler, nor can I explain to my own small children why I spy on elderly Asian men and hipster young couples. Perhaps someday I’ll tell them how scared I was during this time in their lives, how I spent every waking hour worried about the job I was doing as their father and whether my mistakes would permanently fuck them up, but that day seems far away. Neither they, nor I, are ready for that kind of transparency. My kids need to go on thinking that everything is okay in their lives, that Daddy is a Mr. Incredible-esque superhero who’ll do everything in his power to protect his family. Church comes to this same realization with his own son, who’ll have the rest of his life to learn about his father’s weaknesses. “I decided to let him believe for a while that I could lift some trains,” he writes, “. . . because perhaps all children need these sorts of fictions to feel safe.” Parents, it turns out, need them, too.
Andrew Bomback’s first book, Doctor, is forthcoming from Bloomsbury this fall.