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OG DAD #20: ONE YEAR BIRTHDAY EDITION

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It’s party time! Time to party like a big girl!

That’s Dora talking. Dora the Explorer. You may have seen her show. I hadn’t, before I received the Dora doll in the mail, anonymously. (Which we’ll get to.)

It took me a few listens to realize what Dora was saying was potty, not party. This was the Dora The Explorer potty doll. I know that I can do it! she sings, when you press the button in (of all places) her left butt cheek, so come on let’s get to it! Trickle-trickle. Then Mommy…. I did it. I went to the potty! Followed by – WHOOSH!

That whoosh is actually more of a flushing thing, after which comes the proud imprecation: Vamos a lavarnos las manos! Let’s wash our hands, in Spanish.

Of course, the gift wasn’t intended for me. It was for my daughter, on her first birthday. The Big O-1. But there was no card, and Dora’s mug looks alarmingly like Cha-Cha, a Peruvian ex-sex worker with whom I’d spent a fairly heinous, if eventful, three weeks in my twenties. Cha-Cha owned a luxury condo in Iquitos. Financed by dressing like a Catholic schoolgirl and peeing her panties for big time narcotraficantes and hedge fund managers who’d spank her and call her a “dirty little angel.” My last vision of her was wielding a kebab spear at my exposed testicle behind a Lima bowling alley. Surprisingly, it didn’t end well. Just thinking this, while simultaneously playing with my child, stands out as an epic Daddy Shame moment. (I don’t know how it is for other guys, but there are chunks of my past so foul and inconsistent with my current Elder Dad status that just letting them in my head, as I dawdle my little love bug, is like screaming I suck Satan’s Cock at a PTA meeting.)

Dora comes with her own little potty. (Which, weirdly, looks more like a bucket.) But you don’t have to know Cha-Cha to know there’s something pervy about the whole thing. “Can you imagine the guy who designs these?” Elle says. It’s kind of hard not to. “I wonder how many registered sex offenders violate parole when their PO finds Dora the Dripper in their sock drawer.” (Breast-feeding while making this observation). But Baby N loves it, and we spend the day watching her dance along while Dora warbles about what a potty girl she is.

Anyway, it’s a big day. A year! A birthday party! Other parents at my house – which, while (I’m not going to lie) initially terrifying, is – comparatively – great. It’s when you’re at somebody else’s kiddie party, and you’re trapped over a wading pool with a Hipster Insurance Salesman Dad who wants to sell you a “rockin’ homeowner’s policy” that things can get, what’s the word, UNFUCKINGBEARABLE? (How long, exactly, can selling insurance be ironic?) If Insurance Dad had an Ex-Girlfriend Sending Voodoo Piss Doll policy, then I might sign up. Otherwise, I just had to breathe cilantro breath while my daughter and his son sat in the mud giggling and poking each other in the stomach. It looked like a lot more fun.

As he got drunker, Hipster Insurance Dad downshifted into overshare. Father had a heart attack while watching kiddie porn. The police said if he lived they’d have to arrest him. So we all sat around hoping he would die. At this I excused myself to change a diaper. Any diaper. It didn’t even have to be a baby’s. I just wanted to get out of there. (People tell me things, what can I say? When you write a memoir including boatloads of your own atrocities, folks just feel comfy sharing theirs.)

This being a birthday situation, parental conversation turns, inevitably, to Milestones and Percentiles. As in “My Arthur’s nine months. He’s in the 5th percentile for head size and the 95th for body mass. I’m a little concerned.”  Percentiles are fixed, but Milestones are competitive. And by milestone I mean things that your child does before any other child. Eye contact is an early milestone, later big ones are talking, crawling, walking and suing.

At the same birthday fête where I met Insurance Daddy, there was a little Saltine of a man, a lawyer, who wanted me to know “we were ‘f-ing’ blown away when Jebediah started crawling at four months. By five he started walking.” At half a year, apparently, the tyke was doing highlights from River Dance. I’d never actually met anyone who said ‘f-ing’ before. What is that? Is he afraid to say, “fuck?” Does he think he’s on Fresh Air? Whatever, I didn’t mention it. For that matter, I did not mention that my own child, at eleven months, had just started to pull herself on table edges and stand. (Unlike Jeb, the hipster-biblical little shit.) Standing on her own was still a bridge too far. And walking – what’s walking?

Why didn’t I mention this to Jebediah’s proud pop? Because I’d learned my lesson, that’s why. Three weeks ago, I made the mistake of confiding to another newish pop I’d just met that my daughter had just commenced crawling. (In a kind of hip-slung, leg draggy manner my older daughter–one of the funniest people I know–describes as “like the girl in the Exorcist scuttling down the stairs.”)

After I shared my crawl stats, Milestone Dad stepped back in horror. “Dude, does the baby’s Mom do opiates? That shit gets in the breast milk.” Said with a mask of concern that barely covered his gloating. “No,” I said, “it’s not her thing. “ “What about alcohol? Babies can get loaded if a woman drinks, like one glass of wine and gives milk. Dude, seriously.”

Dig it. I’ve known the guy three minutes, and he’s already attributing my daughter’s mobility schedule to… maternal degeneracy. Shared parenthood gives him the right! We’re all experts! For what must be the thousandth time, I commend myself on the uplifting effect late inning Dadhood has had on my soul. I can no longer contemplate homicide without thinking of my child growing up without a father. So I don’t strangle the Dude-guy. I don’t even poke an eye out. That’s growth!

Nobody ever brings up “milestones” unless their little Honey or Heinrich measures up in the top ten. I have my own theory: that early milestone babies are like the people who were popular in high school. They end up working at the DMV – if McDonalds isn’t hiring. Instead of telling him his kid will end up in a Mickey D suit, I dusted off my Einstein anecdote. How young Albert did not talk until he was five. People thought he was retarded.

I confess I made up the retarded part. (I know, but this was before people were “mentally challenged,” though people should probably be retro-correct.) In any event, I have heard though, for a fact, that the father of relativity was a late talker and tardy to master shoelaces. Look it up.

og-GIFBut fuck me. I began this anniversary edition wanting to charm and delight with the fun-wonders of a baby turning one. Instead I’m compelled to talk about screaming. Again. See, after parties, our little one can get over-stimulated. Wail-y. Driving with a tantrum-tot is like having a car fight with someone willing to scream fifty times louder than you, non-stop. On the other hand, babies don’t jump out of the vehicle while it’s moving, as most of the grown women I’ve been involved with were wont to do. So there’s that.

Pre-one, Little N did her share of crying. As babies do. But post-one she’s become inconsolable. Operatic. Confirming Elle’s theory of babydom. All babies are drama queens. There’s fist waggling, head shaking, a pained, stricken look on that tiny face bespeaking a level of betrayal for which there are no words. (Just as well. Since the only words she knows are Dada, Mama, good doggy and something that sounds oddly like “stank.”)

Rule of Thumb, for newcomers: Rate of Volume Increase in baby screaming is inversely proportional to the Energy Spent Trying to Make a Baby Stop Screaming. In this sense, screaming babies exist as metaphors for the universe. Diapered humility machines.

What can I say? At one my daughter owns an other-worldly cuteness I can only compare to Humphrey Bogart in his Gerber Baby days. I have, I confess, come to discriminate baby-types: there are the little professors, the lumps, the boys-who-are-already-dicks, the flirty nine-monthers (girls or boys.) And then there’s Baby N – the pass-her-around-an-old-age-home-to-cheer-up-nonagenarians type. N’s got a smile, but it’s not all over the place. That reluctance to give it up makes people melt into puddles when she goes into some kind of smile storm and starts throwing them around. Plus she wears her hair in a vertical sprout atop her head, like Bam-Bam. Don’t get me started…

The one avoid-at-all-costs of a column like this is the “cute thing my baby does” anecdote. One wrong move and you’re a Japanese YouTube Laughing Fat Baby video. Which, don’t get me wrong, is great for when you’re fucking around in the office. (Or so I assume. It’s been decades since I’ve had a job involving an office.)

Of course we could make our own videos, but I’m not sure they’d be – what’s the word? – appropriate. Because babies just aren’t appropriate. At least mine isn’t. Even Elle is creeped out when, in the course of suckling, our daughter reaches over and starts stroking Mommy’s other tit, complete with Barry White slaps and nipple tweaks, like she’s trying to change the dial on a clock radio. It happens.

(As I write this, mind you, Baby N is pressing and re-pressing Dora’s button. Potty like a big girl! Whoosh!)

But never mind. Right now it’s time for some Parenting Theory. I think after a year I have earned the right to pontificate. In brief, for you note-takers, there are two kinds of parents. (1) The kind who tells their children how wonderful life is, and all the wonderful things there are to enjoy within it. And, (2) those who tell their babes how dangerous life is, and can’t help listing all the things that can kill them. Let’s call them the Joyheads versus Feargivers.

For example: watching N scoot across the living room floor in her diaper, Elle delights in our baby’s newfound freedom. “Look,” she coos, on her knees in front of the baby, “Bink can go anywhere. She’s a world traveller. “

(I should say that seeing a woman on her knees in front of you, with her ass in the air, means one thing before you have a baby, a whole other when the reason she’s on the floor is because you mated a while ago, and now you’re chasing a toddler around. See what happens!)

At one point we did find ourselves saying fuck it, let’s fuck, while our gurgly issue had her face buried in an upside down Dr. Seuss book across the room. It was all systems go for a few minutes. Then Little N took her nose out of Hop On Pop and started shrieking, at which point we had to make the decision, do we finish or do we grab the screaming baby? This is about character, my friends. So basically I finished, and then we stopped. I mean, that’s how it is with a kid; sacrifices must be made. There will be other opportunities. We just have to learn to take the odd pleasure with a wailing accompaniment. (And not, Freud aside, obsess on what a baby might remember from its pre-verbal years, decades later. To live, in the best of times, is to be vaguely traumatized.)

Mysteriously, at the first instance of sexual contact on the premises, our baby will bolt upright out of deep sleep and begin to howl. Apparently she doesn’t want a sibling.

But where were we? The two strains of parent, right. Joy versus Fear. Fun versus Dread. Kitties are cute! Kitties will scratch your eyes out! You get the point. My partner, God love her, watches our newly capable crawler with unalloyed delight. Me – the nego-parent – slides straight to the myriad ways she’ll now be able to break her neck, and possibly end up a paraplegic. The same divergence applies to all endeavors. (Forgive me; I’ve been watching Deadwood re-runs. It makes your writing florid.) Say Baby N and Mom are watching Yo Gabba Gabba!, the surreal Alterna-Sesame Street, dancing their little dance moves to Questlove and digging Devo genius Mark Mothersbaugh drawing doggies. Me – much as I love seeing my baby girl getting a taste of art and music – what I’m really doing is stressing over the brain-cancery radiation emitted by the TV. In front of which we spend hours reading books and playing on a rug. (The death rays, I gather, continue unabated whether the big screen’s on or off.)

I’m not going to lie. It’s hard to be in the now, as Ram Dass used to say, when half of you, at every moment, is obsessing on the cell-mutating power of appliances, electromagnetic waves and smart phones. It’s like the whole world is designed to fuck up my child.

That said, I don’t like to think of myself as neurotic.  I prefer informed. And I am no germaphobe. I’m of the Michael Pollan, babies-need-to-get-dirty-and-get-colonized-by-bacteria school. Two days ago, not to brag, we hunkered en famille in a rabbit hutch inch-deep with bunny turds and rotten cantaloupe husks. And I was fine with it. No problem. But, two hours later, we’re in a restaurant, and I’m dying. Why? Because Elle and Squirmy are giggling and gobbling raspberries – while I’m fixated on the pesticides sprayed on the berries, and the, no doubt, DNA-mutating, genetically modified, Monsanto soybeans in the soymilk we’re drinking.

Is the pattern clear? I was raised by a woman who thought going without socks could result in gangrene – because FDR had a grandnephew who once went sockless and lost his leg up to the femur. At three, resting my rat-faced little gaze on the world, I’d already absorbed the lesson: everything fun can kill you. And everything else is dangerous. Life was more chutes than ladders.

By sheer coincidence, my own mother died at about the same time her new grandchild was born. And there’s no denying that Grandma’s Universe of Menace mentality lives on in Elder-Daddy me. But still… I now realize, on a level I couldn’t grasp my first time around the Daddy track, that non-stop catastrophizing marks its own kind of love. Maybe destructive, mutant, difficult love, but love all the same. That’s how it is for we Eastern European Semite types. To love is to worry about the bad things that can befall the beloved. (Consider the Holocaust.) We’re nervous when the sky is too blue.

I admit, it sounds bleak. On the other hand, I’m wearing a party hat.

Happy Birthday, baby. Potty like a big girl.

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Second image: Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.


Jerry Stahl has written 8 books, including Permanent Midnight, Bad Sex On Speed, and I, Fatty. His new novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, is now out from Harper Perennial. More from this author →