Spying

My father read a lot — usually World War II history or biographies — and he used to retreat to the leather couch in the living room after dinner with his tome in hand. I would pretend to disappear upstairs only to sneak back down the stairs silently. I learned early on how to inhabit the geometry of invisibility. Papa was gone so often at work or traveling that reading books on the couch, preferably in front of a fire, was clearly something that made him feel at home. I only wished the activity had involved me.

Not to say my father ignored me. He faithfully coached every Little League baseball team I was on when we lived together, and even the first one I joined after my parents got divorced and my mom, sister, and I moved across town. He led almost every one of those teams to the championship. He would work on the batting order for our next game the night before, explaining the strengths and weaknesses of each hitter to me as I wondered where he would put me. Years later Papa told me that his corporate boss never liked the hours my father spent away from the office coaching.

My father also loved cards and taught my sister and me the best strategies in blackjack and a slew of poker games I can still remember, ranging from “Night Baseball” to “Stud.” We’d stay up past bedtime anteing up pennies and fighting for the kitty. When I think of those moments on the den carpet, I recall the rough stubble on my father’s face and how potent the veins in his hands looked as he shuffled the deck for the twentieth time.

Still, my father was often remote to me. I remember once I looked at his face and asked him about the fleck of amber that appeared in one of his hazel eyes; he backed away and told me to leave him alone. I see now how desperately I wanted intimacy with him, reaching for it as he literally took steps away.

So it was a delight for me to sneak undetected into the living room to watch my father read. I felt so close to him then, in a strange and sad way. He was like a deity I could near but never touch.

I got so good at spying that I tried it all over the house; it was the best way to discover what was really going on. Eavesdropping on my mother’s phone calls to her friends, I learned how badly her relationship with my father was going. Once I found hundreds of dollars wadded up and squirreled away in my mother’s leather boot.

My sneakiness continued until one day when I stumbled upon something I didn’t want to see. It was a Saturday morning, and my mom and sister were out of the house. I snuck into my father’s den to see what he was doing. I thought maybe I’d find him reading, or writing on the yellow legal pads he used for work. Instead, in the dappled light coming in through the window, I found him bent over on the floor, sobbing with a might I had never seen.

I still don’t know what made my father cry like that, but whatever it was was the very thing that kept him from me.

Up and Leaving

A few weeks ago I walked out of the cabin where Annie and Rio were playing on the couch, climbed into my car, and got ready to drive to nowhere in particular. I paused for a moment before turning the key to ask myself what I was actually doing.

It’s not that Rio and Annie were bothering me. In fact, we’d been having a great day up at the lake in Connecticut. The truth I came to is that I needed a break  – I knew it from a tightness just under my skin — and physically removing myself from my family is the best way I’ve found to do this. Some might disengage on the sly, turning to the phone, or the television, or the computer; others might cruise along on autopilot, pretending with a nod here and an “uh-huh” there to be listening, all the while living internally in another world. No, when I’m on, I’m on, but then I need to hit the off switch. In those moments, mobility calls.

I hesitate to play gender games, but I wonder if there’s something male to this penchant for departure. Pablo Neruda once wrote, “It so happens I’m tired of just being a man. . . .  / A whiff from a barbershop does it: I yell bloody murder. / All I ask is a little vacation from things: from boulders and woolens, / from gardens, institutional projects, merchandise, / eyeglasses, elevators — I’d rather not look at them. . . . / I stroll and keep cool, in my eyes and my shoes / and my rage and oblivion.”

It’s one thing to take a harmless “little vacation”; it’s another to avoid difficult situations by orchestrating great escapes. I’ve left many a room with a slam of the door right when the going got tough. I remember one day when I was 13 and over at my friend Sam’s house. He and I were fledgling punk rockers and wanted our appearances to match our burgeoning fuck-you attitudes. Sam’s grandfather had been a barber and still had his razor. We convinced him to give us “buzz cuts,” and I asked for a “number one.” I arrived home that evening with a cut so short you could see my scalp. My mom couldn’t hide her disappointment. “That looks terrible!” she exclaimed, and rather than fight or reason it out I left the house with a slam and a scream, spending the next hour on foot on Pasadena’s sidewalks, cursing the meddling world and yet feeling freed from it through my ambling.

Rather than deal with my mom, I just left; how many men had I seen do the same at critical moments, finding some odd errand to do or simply retreating within their own homes to basement workshops where they’d tinker on projects no one else seemed to take as seriously as they did? Although most of the fathers I know now are more communicative than many of the men who came before us, it seems the penchant for sequestering behind some safe wall lives on.

It’s hard for me to know when this yen for distance will arrive, but I know when it comes: I start losing patience and interest in my loved ones and jump at chances to leave the house, as though the milk we’re out of were some precious lifeblood. What men do on these outings, whether to the store or to the shed, is largely mysterious, even to them it seems. Tom Waits has a great song, “What’s He Building in There?” to which I respond, “I’m not quite sure!”

Perhaps the point for the man is less the activity and more the time away: there is a power to severing proximity’s cord for a while, feeling for a few moments as though there is nothing tying us to the world. I wonder if this is partially evolutionary: sure, wives and children need us, but not in the biological way they need each other. I remember feeling almost jealous of Annie when she was nursing Rio: he needed her milk in a way that nothing I had to offer could compare. Could men’s sudden exits actually be a defense mechanism springing from their fear of being left?

Perhaps the best I can do is to make these sojourns out into the world interesting, to gain something other than just the fleeting pleasure of separation — to have something to share with Annie and Rio when I return. You can’t believe what I found! isn’t a bad sentiment to aspire to. And on the other hand, I’ve also learned that sometimes I stand to gain when I resist the urge to leave; that the maddening details of home are not always hassles to flee but rather messy treasures that family life offers up.

If I’m really honest, I’d say what often prompts me to leave is not difficulty or fatigue but more often intimacy; in the mornings, just as Annie and Rio start to cuddle, I usually leave the room to get my day started. I seem in these moments uncomfortable with the closeness that comes so readily to them. The fact is, they’ve practiced their intimacy, while I too often avoid it. This makes no rational sense, and when I’m able to catch myself and stay in the room for just a few extra minutes, I experience a familial love that often patches whatever holes I have in me.

Rilke wrote a beautiful poem that grapples with the push-pull a father faces:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper
and walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
because of a church that stands somewhere in the East.

And his children say blessings on him as if he were dead.

And another man, who remains inside his own house,
dies there, inside the dishes and in the glasses,
so that his children have to go far out into the world
toward that same church, which he forgot.

I hope that Rio sees a man who seeks both the promise of distant churches and the opportunity for growth in the house he lives in. May he learn to pull off the great balancing act of embracing both.