On the occasion of my son turning nine

My son Arlo turns 9 years old today. This (above) is what he looks like these days. This was taken a few days ago on one of our long, late morning walks around Ypsilanti between his two online class periods. I suspect, at some point, he’ll tire of hanging around with me, but, as of right now, he still seems to enjoy my company.

Today, after sledding in Riverside Park, we were climbing up the hill to come home, and he was slipping a bit in the snow. I extended my hand to pull him up. And, as he came up alongside of me, he said, “Thanks for being my dad.” He’s always been a good, sweet kid, but it doesn’t usually come out in such a direct way. And it meant a lot to me, as did the fact that, a few minutes before that, when I slipped and fell, kind of hurting my arm in the process, he ran over to make sure that I was alright, asking if there was anything that he could do to help me. We have our issues, especially when it comes to screen time, and his constant desire to be playing video games, but, when it comes to the important stuff, I couldn’t ask for a better son. He’s smart, caring and inquisitive. And he’s got a pretty fucking good sense of humor.

And I love the fact that I’ve gotten to know him so much better since the onset of the pandemic. We’d always spent a lot of time together, but, lately, since we’ve started taking these long walks of ours, the amount of quality time we’ve spent together has increased tenfold. Out of the house, just walking around, without the lure of video games, or any other distractions, we just talk. In the summer, we’d take a chess board with us, and play on the banks of the river. Now, we bring a thermos of tea and something to eat. Lately we’ve been spending more time at the graveyard, talking about the things that can be gleaned from the tombstones, and speculating as to what life might have been like in the Ypsilanti of yesteryear. And, when we’re not hiking, we’re reading, learning about animals, and drawing together. This afternoon, we started working on a story about an octopus that built a robot with an aquarium for a head so that he could leave the ocean. Oh, and we spend a lot of time looking for hawks. Here’s Arlo approaching what we’re pretty sure is a red tailed hawk. [Arlo is at the bottom, the hawk is at the top.]

I’d love to go on, and tell you more about this incredible little person, but I have work to do, as we’re getting ready to roll out our holiday meals at Bellflower. As I don’t want to end just yet, though, I thought that I’d share the following two things, which I wrote on the occasion of previous birthdays celebrated by my son.

Here’s what I said on his first birthday:

A year ago yesterday, Linette and I we welcomed our son Arlo into the world. Like his sister, once he made up his mind that he wanted to join us, he came shooting down the birth canal like a rocket. I think I must have mentioned it here before, but, eight years ago, when Linette was pregnant with Clementine, we barely made it to the hospital in time. And, as second babies usually come faster, we thought that we’d plan on having this one at home, with a midwife. Some members of my family were a little apprehensive, but we’d done our homework, and, given how incredibly well Clementine’s birth had gone, we didn’t seem to think that there was much risk. So, we rented an inflatable pool, which we put in our living room, just a few feet from where I’m now typing this, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Here’s what the little guy looked like a few minutes after coming out.

Our midwives, who were delayed a bit due to unforeseen transportation issues, arrived at a little after 1:00 AM on the morning of December 2. And, within nine minutes of their arrival, we were holding the baby. I can’t remember the exact series of events. I remember making a lot of trips to the stove, where I was heating up water for the pool. And I remember making a few calls to the midwives, trading status updates. At some point before the baby was born, I ran upstairs and woke Clementine, telling her that, if she wanted to, she could join us for the big event. She wasn’t sure at first, but she eventually came down and stood at my side, at the end of the pool, waiting for her sibling to emerge. It all happened really quickly once Linette stepped into the pool. With one exception, everything went without a hitch. As the baby was about half-way into the world, the midwife told me help make sure that the baby’s head didn’t come above the surface of the water. Apparently babies are fine as long as they’re underwater, but, as soon as they break the surface, they need to remain out, as they instinctively begin to inhale once they feel air on their skin. So, the last thing you want to do, if you’re at home, planning to have an unassisted water birth tonight, is to come out of the water between pushes, when the baby is half-way out, as it could result in drowning. Fortunately, though, we were able to keep all the action below the surface of the water, and, a few seconds later, he kind of shot out into my hands.

If I’m not mistaken, it was Clementine who informed us that we’d had a son, having had the presence of mind to check for a penis.

We all smiled at him, introduced ourselves, and covered him in blankets. And that’s when the midwife, having begun her paperwork, asked us what his name was. We’d had a girl’s name that we’d both liked – Violet – but we still hadn’t come to consensus on a boy’s name. I had been advocating for Powell. (I also liked Sullivan, although I didn’t like the idea that people could refer to him as “Sully”.) Linette had liked Arlo. And, when the midwife asked us, I said “go ahead,” and she made it official. She liked Arlo, she said, because she was fed up with names that sounded as if they had trust funds attached to them. And she thought that he would be “cute enough to pull it off.” My main objection to Arlo stemmed from the fact that I knew people would think that we’d named him after libertarian former hippie Arlo Guthrie. With time it’s grown on me, though, and I’ve enjoyed the many chances I’ve been given to inform people as to the politics of Arlo Gutherie. Plus, I think Arlo sounds like a good astronaut name.

Speaking of what Arlo will be when he grows up, a friend of ours who teaches first and second grade asked us to bring the baby to her class a few days ago. They’d been studying Chinese culture, and apparently there’s something that people in that country used to do upon the first birthday of a baby. They’d lay a number of objects in front of the baby, with each representing a specific career, and then they’d see which one the baby went for. If the baby, for instance, picked up a shoe, he could be a cobbler. So, these kids all brought things from home to tempt my baby with. There were about twenty things laid out on a blanket, including a caligrapher’s pen, a piece of chalk, a paintbrush, a small jewel, a doctor’s coat, a picture of the president, a toy car, and a test tube. As I held Arlo above it, surveying the choices, it occurred to me that it was more a test for me than for him, as I could choose to set him down anywhere. So, I positioned myself as far away as possible from the caligrapher’s pen… because, really, what kind of career is that… and let him go, hoping that he wouldn’t just immediately dive for the shiniest object, thereby setting in motion a chain of events that would see him in a career selling costume jewelry from a cardboard box on a Manhattan street corner. As it turned out, I didn’t have to intervene, and shove something into his hand. After a little thought, he picked up the test tube, which, according to the kids in the class, means that he’ll be a scientist. And, after the test tube, he then went for a frog puppet, which, they tell me, means that he’ll do some puppeteering on the side.

Here he is at a few months old, in a photo taken by our friend Leisa Thompson. (The hideous crone hand is mine.)

While birth was easy, pregnancy wasn’t. The seven years separating Clementine and Arlo were full of miscarriages. Eventually it all worked out. Linette attributes it to acupuncture, and that fact that we started going to bed early, so that we could watch episodes of Friday Night Lights on Netflix.

As for what Arlo is like today, he’s both physically strong and strong willed. I remember being struck, just after his birth, that he could already lift his head and turn it. He’s always had incredible strength, not just of muscle, but will. He knows what he likes, and god help you if you want to take something from him that he doesn’t want to give up. He’s got a vice-like grip, and he can snatch the glasses off your face before the first neuron fires in your brain telling you to implement evasive counter-measures. I have little doubt that, if he wanted to, he could tear my face off faster than a drunken baboon.

I’d like to comment on his intellect, but, to be honest, he hasn’t shown me much so far. As of today, he knows how to say “ball,” “bye,” and “balloon.” According to Linette, he can say “mama” but chooses not to. And he knows to wave when someone puts on their jacket. Other than that, and being incredibly cute, and as strong as an ox, he’s probably just like any other one year-old. His grandparents hate it when say that, but it’s true.

He doesn’t like to sit still. He’s always moving from one experience to the next. Whereas Clementine would be happy as a baby to just curl up like a cat on my belly, as I watched episodes of Columbo, Arlo can’t lay still for longer than minute. When he’s not latched onto a breast, he’s compelled to move. In the early months, I would have to pace around with him for hours on end. Nothing else would make him happy. The songs that Clementine used to love do absolutely nothing for him. And books are repeatedly smacked out of my hands. I try to tell myself that all little boys are like this, but I fear that, in a few more years I might have to give up any pretense that I’m in charge, and just slink off into a closet somewhere. Every once in a while, I catch a glimpse of something that gives me hope that he won’t be like this forever, though. I’ll catch him looking thoughtfully at something for a moment, for instance, before he launches it across the room with a bloodcurdling scream. As he’s only one, I’m reluctant to make any snap judgements, but, based on what I’ve seen so far, it’s certainly possible that, like it or not, I’ll be engaged in some form of extreme parenting. I have visions of myself chasing him through perilous construction sites, and being beaten nearly to death playing football in our back yard. Ribs, at the very least, will be broken. I know that much.

This is what Arlo looked like this summer, when he was about eight months old. (The tintype was taken at Photobooth SF.)

I’m feeling my age.

For a good deal of my father’s life, he was raised by his grandparents, on their small, Kentucky farm. I remember, as a kid, being struck how odd that must have been, being raised by an old man. Well, a few days ago, as I was struggling to lift my son, it occurred to me that I’m probably older than my great-grandfather was when my father was born. I’m also older right now than my dad was when I moved out of the house, at the age of 18.

There’s a lot to be said for waiting to have children. I’d like to think that I’m smarter, more reflective, and more thoughtful than I was twenty years ago. I don’t know, however, that the trade-off is worth it. While I can certainly do things for him now that I couldn’t do at 20, like afford to take him on a whirlwind tour of New York’s museums, I don’t know that I’ll me in any condition to go on long hiking trips with him, like my dad did with me. Or, for that matter, even give him a piggyback ride without wincing.

And, finally, here’s what the little guy looks like today.

In conclusion, I’m a very lucky man, even with the OCD, the bad back, and the sleepless nights. I’m not good at much, but apparently I make lovely, delightful children… Here’s hoping they continue on to be productive, happy, relatively well-adjusted adults…

Here’s what I said when he turned 7:

If the Jesuit motto, “Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” as popularized in Michael Apted’s Up Series, has any merit, the time we have left to influence our son Arlo, who turned 7 this morning, is fast running out. As of right now, we have just 364 days to mold him into the man he will be the rest of his life.

For the most part, I’d say that, if he grew up to be exactly the same as he is now, only a little bit larger, more worldly, and perhaps employable, we would have done a pretty good job as parents. He is, by most accounts, a pretty terrific kid. He is smart, inquisitive, thoughtful, and, when it really matters, kind. He’s not perfect by a long shot, but he shows great potential. He pushes boundaries at home, pokes and prods for attention, and quarrels with his teenage sister, bit, beneath it all, he’s an incredibly sensitive kid with a big heart. With no encouragement on our behalf, he told us a few years ago that he wanted to be a vegetarian, as he couldn’t stand the thought of animals dying so that he might eat them. Granted, he said he still wanted to make an exception for bacon and pepperoni, but, for a five year old to say that on his own, and then stick with it, I think, is an impressive thing. And I think it gets to the heart of who he is. Beneath all of the fart jokes, and the nonsense, he’s a pretty serious, thoughtful young man who cares about those around him. And I couldn’t be happier to have him living here with us, even if he spends a good part of each day asking us if he can get on the iPad, talking about Pokemon, and making up reasons not to go to sleep.

I had a migraine this morning, so I missed a good deal of his birthday, locked up in my bedroom, with a pillow over my head. I usually get my migraines later in the day, and I always handle them in the same way. I rush home from wherever I am before I completely lose my vision, which usually takes about half an hour, and then I jump into bed and go to sleep. When I wake up, I’m usually a bit disoriented, but the headache is gone, and I can see clearly again. As today’s migraine hit me early in the morning, though, as I was folding laundry, I couldn’t get back to sleep. So I just lay in bed, thinking. I spend hours just watching the light show of my migraine flash across my closed eyelids, while thinking about my son. [Thankfully, the pain this time wasn’t too bad.] It was like I was dreaming while awake. My thoughts just jumped around without much rhyme or reason. One minute, I was thinking about watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein with him in bed on a snowy night, and the next, I was thinking of how much he impressed me during a recent trip to Greenfield Village, when he was talking with one of the historical reenactors about turn-of-the-century refrigeration. And I didn’t really have any control over what I was seeing. I wasn’t trying to summon up specific memories. It was as if I were dying, and everything was just kind of flashing before me. I’d see his smile on a carrousel, and the next thing I knew, I was standing in a pool and he was jumping into my arms for the first time. It sounds weird to say it, as most of my life is spent worrying that a migraine might strike in any minute, but it was really incredibly beautiful.

I don’t know how much Arlo would want me to make public about his young life with us. I’m sure, at some point, he’ll ask me to scrub this site of any mention, for instance, that he was born in our dining room, with his sister helping, but there are a few things I’d like to mention, just so they’re recorded somewhere. The following are in no particular order, and they’re not necessarily the most important things about my son. They’re just all things that I thought about today, while in bed, waiting for my migraine to pass.

First, I used to tease him about not being human. I’m not sure when it started, but it was relatively early on. I told him that he was a creature called a Whoodie Boodie, and that a farmer somewhere in rural Michigan had caught him in a Whoodie Boodie trap. [The Whoodie Boodie were eating his fields, so he didn’t have much choice.] Arlo knew that I was kidding, as he knew that he was born in our dining room, in a rented, inflatable pool, which he’d seen photos of, but he’d get mad every time I said it. [It was kind of a fake mad that I don’t think we have a word for in English.] I’d tell him in detail how we had to surgically remove his trunk, file down his fangs, and shave him every night in his sleep, and he’d scream at me in this funny kind of way, yelling, “I am a real boy, not a Whoodie Boodie.” Clementine, for what it’s worth, was not a Whoodie Boodie, but something called a Fuddah Fuddah. There was no real origin story in her case as I recall. She wasn’t caught in a trap, and surgically transformed into a little girl. And, if memory serves, I think she started it. She would say that I was a Fuddah Fuddah, and I would correct her, saying that, no, it was she who was the Fuddah Fuddah. And we’d go back and forth.

Speaking of Clementine, I just remembered that one of the first things she said as a baby was in response to me saying, “Daddy’s alwayssss.” I’d say, “Daddy’s alwayssss….,” and she’d enthusiastically add, “RIGHT!” Linette didn’t find it funny, but it amused me. I guess it was probably my first foray into the world of what people now refer to as dad humor.

Second, it’s a super small thing, but Arlo told us a few days ago that a girl in his school came in late because she had to have her feet shaved. When asked to explain, he couldn’t. He just said that was what he’d heard. And I told myself that, one of these days, I should write it down for posterity. It must have been this thought, this morning, as I lay in bed with a headache, that triggered my memory of telling him that we had to shave him every night, so people wouldn’t recognize him as a Whoodie Boodie. [Who knows, maybe Whoodie Boodies are real.]

Third, Arlo is getting to the point where he appreciates that there’s a difference between boys and girls. Last fall, he was telling me about a girl that he’d been playing tag with at school, and how it felt different when she tagged him than when his other friends tagged him. He was genuinely asking me why it felt different to him, and I found it to be incredibly sweet. He also said that her eyes were “sparkly,” which isn’t something he’s ever said about his male friends. I don’t want him to rush into the world of young-adulthood, but it’s interesting to see how it happens, and I’m happy for our conversations. I don’t think I was very open about such things as a boy, and I suspect my life my way in life may have been a bit easier if I had been. At any rate, I’m thankful that we have the kind of relationship where we can talk about such things.

Fourth, we’ve been having quite a few conversations lately about how it’s important for people to “know their audience,” and how, for instance, humor that might work incredibly well on the playground, doesn’t work quite so well with a teenage sister, or middle-aged patents. And I think that’s one big downside to having an older father. While I think I’m probably better in a lot of ways, my tolerance for some things is pretty much nonexistent. For instance, there’s a pitch that he can hit that just kills one of my 50-year-old ears. And it’s difficult to convince a six year old, no matter what kind of potential they may show toward empathy, to hold it down. I mean, he knows he can’t push me down the stairs, as he knows what would happen. But it’s impossible to convey what might be going on inside my ear, or, for that matter, inside the mind of his 14 year old sister. It just doesn’t register with him. So we’ve been talking more about his need for attention, how absolutely normal it is, how there’s a difference between positive and negative attention, and how, if what he really desires is our time, he might do better to request that we read the Three Investigators together, or play a game of Uno, than leap out of a box, and scream “oodgie budgie,” while poking us in the stomach. [Thankfully, he sees to be transitioning away from “oodgie budgie.” His new go-to phrase this week is “mommy karate.”]

Fifth, we took him and some friends to an indoor trampoline park yesterday, to jump around like maniacs and eat donuts. When the jumping was over, a young woman who worked at the place led Arlo over to a giant wheel, where he could spin for gifts. She told him to go ahead and spin the wheel, pointing out all of the things that he might win, and then he gave the wheel the tiniest of spins ever, moving it about two inches, and landing on “Icees for the Crew,” which is what he’d wanted. She thought about it for a moment, considering the possibility of telling him that he’d broken the rules by not spinning the wheel harder, but she just said, “Well, no one has ever done that before, but I guess there’s no rule against it.” As we walked forward to get our icees, she said, “He’s a really smart kid, isn’t he?” And it was at that point, it dawned on me that he’d probably be able to take care of himself once he left he nest. At least that’s my hope. And, while it’s true that he is smart, I think a better word for him is clever….

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8 Comments

  1. Anonymous
    Posted December 1, 2020 at 11:16 pm | Permalink

    Happy birthday Arlo! Enjoy your dad while you can.

  2. Posted December 2, 2020 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    Keep walking and playing chess with Arlo. Hiking, camping and canoeing with my Dad are my memories and no one else’s. Having memories of you unique to Arlo and no one else are important.

  3. Posted December 2, 2020 at 8:30 am | Permalink

    I guess it’s possible that you didn’t fake these photos by arranging some items of children’s winter clothes on some sticks so as to give the appearance your son is spending this quality time with you. Either way, happy birthday to Arlo.

  4. Jean Henry
    Posted December 2, 2020 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Beautiful.

  5. Lynne
    Posted December 2, 2020 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    He is going to treasure those walks so much when he is grown! Happy Birthday!

  6. BrianB
    Posted December 2, 2020 at 4:51 pm | Permalink

    Happy Birthday Arlo!!! Incidentally, Ypsilanti is one of top 10 cities in America to live in for scientists that moonlight as puppeteers.

  7. ElsieGal
    Posted December 3, 2020 at 7:49 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful post and fantastic pictures. Arlo will probably remember different things than you do about your walks and other 1-1 times–he is forming those on his own. My Dad died when I was 27, and I’ve few memories of him during “big” times like high school and college graduation. I do remember being his (grumbling) helper in the garage while he built a camper for our pick-up, listening to music together, and visiting elderly neighbors and relatives. Quiet moments, all, but the ones that resonate the loudest. You are making good memories for Arlo (and presumably equally for Clementine!), and that’s golden.

  8. Grandma
    Posted December 21, 2020 at 5:06 am | Permalink

    I don’t know how I hadn’t seen this until now, but wow. A very heartfelt, loving post on such a wonderful young man. Arlo is all you said and even more! I’m proud of the dad you are. Love you all.

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