"Temporality is part of the truth" -- Chuck Klosterman

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The Breath of Life

The most obvious thing about Xander is the plastic tube stuck up his nose. He was born at 34 weeks and one day of gestation, which provoked a peck of petty pneumonia. His first week was ventilator tubes, chest x-rays, and a plethora of different doctors and nurses and respiratory specialists poking and prodding. But after six days, he was down to the minimum of airflow interventions: a simple cannula taped to his cheeks with prongs thrusting only a few centimeters into his nostrils and a low amount of pure oxygen pressure to help his lungs heal and grow. He stayed in the NICU for another three weeks, and even when he was ready to go home, he still needed the oxygen.

It’s nearly six weeks later and he’s still got the tube stuck up his nose. The day we brought Xander home, Apria Healthcare came out to install a large oxygen tank and to give us a small sign warning us not to smoke, even though as Mormons we tend to shy away from such things. (Wait, do people still smoke these days?) The oxygen tank looks like it should fill carnival balloons with helium and stands in our hallway between the master bedroom and the nursery, just outside of the bathroom. Our house is small enough that the 25 feet of tubing plus about seven feet of cannula can reach anywhere in the upstairs part of the house, and we just discovered yesterday during the 60 degree January-in-Colorado afternoon that it will reach about two feet out the back door. He’s so light that I like to carry him like a notebook in my left arm, sort of forgetting that he’s there while I do the dishes with my right hand, or at least neglecting to remember that we’re both in shackles. I’m acclimated enough now that sometimes I even try to carry him downstairs so I can change the laundry or something. I was three steps down the stairs once when the tube yanked on his face, and Xander kindly reminded me that we could not proceed as such.

We can go downstairs. Just attach a portable tank in a convenient shoulder-bag. I did this often the first couple of weeks, when May needed sleep and I wanted to watch TV or use the computer or run on the treadmill in the basement. Xander has a little easy chair he spends most of his time in. It reclines, it rocks. For a quarter, it will even vibrate like the bed at a cheap motel. I can carry him downstairs in the chair, his oxygen over my shoulder, and he sits stilll like a good boy and watches me run for 45 minutes. Actually, mostly he just sleeps. (Treadmill secret: hook up a DVD player, watch your favorite TV series. Dramas work better because they're the right length and it’s difficult to belly laugh at Arrested Development when you’re running. And dramas with cliffhanger endings to each episode--like 24--work best because then you want to run again tomorrow. :)

But to paraphrase the immortal Ferris, life moves pretty fast. Things change quickly. I now work on my laptop at the kitchen table. We actually canceled our Direct TV because we essentially haven’t watched our TiVo since May was admitted to the hospital in October five weeks before Xander was even born. The last episode of this season’s Mad Men is recorded but still not viewed. Nobody tell me how it ends, like if Don Draper proposes to his ex-secretary or something. I don’t want to know yet. Maybe we can hire a babysitter and my wife and I can spend an hour in the basement one night...I’m not going to finish that sentence. Never mind. The point is that the reasons for even going into the basement are growing thin. (I have used the treadmill a few times since my leave started, but the labor intensiveness of disconnecting and reconnecting the oxygen grows more annoying every time.)

The doctor has said that Xander could be on oxygen anywhere from a couple of months up to a year. I know that our circumstances are if not unique then at least uncommon and that this isn’t the only cause for change when you have a baby. I have done this before. Some changes are to be expected. However, I hope certain things will become simpler once Xander’s lungs heal and he doesn't need the extra boost any more. Plus, maybe I can take up smoking again.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Fatherhood: A Manifesto

Back in my college days, I was fairly liberal-minded. Not that I was attending hemp rallies and staging sit-ins to get Dean Wormer to ban the CIA from campus recruiting. It was BYU, after all. I was a radical just by wearing my hair slightly below the collar. But I also gave back the night several times and even wrote a final grad school paper on how men could benefit from feminist literary theory.

So when my first daughter was born the summer between receiving my BA and commencing grad school, it was my honored duty to be able to spend what I thought was a lot of time with her. Still, I was working two part time jobs and then, in the fall, taking various classes. I would often take my daughter to campus, even to class, which wasn’t uncommon in the Mormon culture of multiply-and-replenish, except I don’t remember a lot of other fathers doing it. I felt more than a little supercilious with my daughter in the crook of my arm like a football as I strode through the halls of the Jesse Knight Humanities Building.

I didn’t get the same opportunity with my second daughter. I was back living in Aurora, working full time, actually just having begun a new teaching job the week she was born. No time off then. It was my first year teaching: sixth graders at a middle school in one of the (how can I put this delicately?) “less respected” school districts in Colorado. My fathering opportunities were severely limited that first year of her life, and to be sure, I arrived home after trying to cajole squirrely tweens into just staying in their chairs for more than three minutes at a time with little energy or excitement to parent my own children.

Eleven years later, my son was born. Having arrived a wee bit early, Xander dormed with the nurses in the NICU for four weeks until he was sent home to reside with his anxious parents. A mere five weeks later, his mother, my wife, May--her name is May--was required to return to work; her FMLA leave had expired. And I had the perfect opportunity to live the family life I had touted back in college.

Before I go any further, I want to make sure no one comes along and calls me Mr. Mom. Sure it was fun to watch Michael Keaton fumble around the house in 1983, and we all cried when they had to burn the woobie, but I really hope we’re beyond assuming that fathers don’t know how to change diapers and do housework. I know we’re not--at parent-teacher conferences the other night, after I informed one student’s mother of my impending leave, she was speechless then said her husband never changed a diaper in his life--really?--in 2011?--but, still, don’t insult me and call me Mr. Mom.

My paternity leave began on January 27, 2011, and I will be full-time Dad for over two months. I have received nothing but support from the administration at school, the other teachers who couldn’t be more jealous, my daughters, my wife. I’m probably overly eager for the opportunity I have here. I thought I spent a lot of time with my first daughter, but I really didn’t, and I know I didn’t get enough time with the second. Now, it’s only been about 48 hours, and I don’t really want to go back to work. Ever. In a few weeks I’ll start to miss coaching Spring soccer, and maybe I’ll even reach a point where I’ll miss the teaching part, but I can’t imagine feeling like this isn’t worth it.

Every father should do this. The world would be a better place. Guaranteed. That’s my manifesto.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Three Art Docs

“Your art is the prettiest art of all the art.” --Roy from The Office

I’ve recently viewed three documentaries about art. But such different art.

Most recently, I saw the movie Exit Through the Gift Shop. This film is made by the underground street artist called Banksy, about whom I knew nothing until he created a Simpsons couch gag for an episode back in October. You remember: Korean sweatshop, dead kitty fur in the Bart dolls, Panda bears used as pack mules, DVD-hole-punching sad unicorns. View the couch gag here.

Exit Through the Gift Shop isn’t really about Banksy. It’s about a guy named Thierry Guetta who films everything he does. Everything. Just films it. He’s married, has a family, and runs a thrift shop in Los Angeles. Then a relation from France visits and takes him out at night to meet up with some street artists and...do street art. I guess that’s what you call it. This is more than just graffiti. I suppose you could call it tagging, because it’s like they have their own signature, but it’s so much cooler than that. I wouldn’t mind at all if one of these guys tagged my garage door. One guy glues tile images of space invaders all over the city. One guy draws (with spray paint) a stick figure that seems to fit in with any signage or crack in the wall. Then there’s the guy who photoshopped Andre the Giant’s head over a declarative “OBEY” and put those things up all over the world. His name is Shepard Fairey and went on to design the famous tri-color Obama portrait during the 2008 election. Eventually Guetta meets up with Banksy, who’s British and super-reclusive. No one really knows who he is. (I personally think he must be the Countess of Pembroke.) But he does the coolest art of all the street art. This is one of my favorites:

And here's Bansky's website. You should visit.

It turns out that Banksy thought Guetta was actually a documentary film maker, when really, all Guetta was doing was filming things. Guetta tries to make an actual film at one point, and it kind of looks like that video tape from The Ring. Banksy eventually just tells Guetta to stop filming and go make his own art, so that’s what Guetta does. He doesn’t really seem to have any talent, so he hires young graphic artists to create things for him. Within a couple of months, he’s got hundreds of pieces completed and he’s putting on the biggest show in LA, selling pieces for thousands of dollars each. I think the film says he made over a million dollars with this art show. You can imagine the hooded shadow of Bansky just shaking his head, grinning all the while like Mr. Burns, tenting his fingers, and muttering through the vocorder, “Excellent.”

Now Exit Through the Gift Shop gets an Academy Award nomination. Which is why I think this film says something so interesting about art. Banksy’s film is a wink and a nod through the teeth at what it takes to be an artist, by basically showing how a man with no talent can become the talk of the town. And the real question is can Banksy continue to be an underground street artist if he’s making Oscar-nominated documentaries and writing couch gags for arguably one of the most popular television shows ever? Despite the provocative nature of the gag, and the total in-joke tone of the movie, once you're that successful, can you still be subversive?

I don’t have as much to say about the other two films.

Rivers and Tides is about the artist Andy Goldsworthy who creates temporary works of art from elements of nature. He makes giant egg-shaped sculptures from flat rocks. He strings leaves into a snake, then sets it loose down a babbling brook just to see what shapes and colors it produces. He fashions a huge web just by balancing small sticks upon one another. It’s a pretty slow moving film, but put it on an HD screen, turn up the mesmerizing Fred Frith soundtrack, and just experience the random beauty.

If you’re telling yourself that filling a tide pool with dandelion heads and taking a picture of it isn’t art, then, well, you’re wrong because you really should see what he can do with dandelion heads and wood chips, but also, you need to see My Kid Could Paint That. This one’s about a five or six-year-old girl named Marla Olmstead, who’s abstract painting created quite a stir in the art world a few years ago. Her father marketed her art and sold several pieces for thousands of dollars. Then some stodgy old 60 Minutes reporter dared to question if Marla was really the one painting these pieces. The film follows that controversy and even tries to film Marla painting a canvas to see if she’s really the artist. (Personally, I think they must have been painted by the Countess of Pembroke.) The other issue brought up in the film is what makes art, art. There’s an intriguing discussion about abstract art and how it’s really not as easy to create as some people like to think.

Take a look at some of Marla Olmstead’s paintings. Here's her website. A few do look to me a little like a child’s finger paintings, but others look like they could be by Jackson Pollock. Does it matter who painted them? Is it enough just to think they look cool?

Exit Through the Gift Shop website
I couldn't find an official Rivers and Tides website, but here's some good info.
My Kid Could Paint That website

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Facebook Conundrum

I’ve been on Facebook for about three weeks and here’s my experience so far.

Day One: Middle of the night. I hold the baby in the crook of my left arm to keep him asleep. I open my laptop at the kitchen table and my wife’s Facebook page is open. On a whim, perhaps because of the lack of sleep, I decide to sign on up, input my info. It wants to know where I’m from and where I went to school and what religion I am. I’m game. Input data. I have a profile. Now what? It tells me I should Find Friends. I friend my wife and my fifteen year old daughter, but they have to confirm my request. Can you decline a friend request? Won’t I be the loser if they do.

Day two through seventeen: I don’t look back at the Facebook account even once.

Day eighteen: Feeling nostalgic after cleaning out a closet and finding long lost journals. I wonder if I can get in touch with old friends on Facebook. Again, it’s late. This time I can type more easily  because the baby’s snoring away in his comfy chair next to the table. Old names give way to old faces. Old faces. The ugly realization is that if I’m forty, my old friends are forty, too. What’s Joan Cusak’s line from Gross Pointe Blank: “It was just as if everyone had swelled.” Despite the horror, I friend them anyway. That same night two or three others friend me back. That’s it. I sense little satisfaction.

 (I interrupt the narrative to mention the first drawback of being a cog in the machine. I swear there’s a word for this (and a better word than “verbing,” I tell you), but it’s the use of nouns as verbs run amok. Not that I have any problem with a little neologism now and then, but do we have to use “friend” as a verb? It sounds so silly. I spoke to a friend at church earlier today, and her valediction was, “I’ll friend you later.” Can’t we stick with phrases like “I’ll look you up”? or even “I’ll find you on Facebook”? Instead, we’re running around “friending” each other like it’s a euphemism for another kind of intercourse.)

These are people I haven’t seen in years, decades--ages would not really be an exaggeration. There they are, literally right in front of me. I can touch them with my words. And the interaction after all these years? A computer beep and a prescribed notice that your BFF from sophomore year German class has accepted your friend request. That’s it. Nothing else. No, “OMG it’s great to hear from you. I was thinking of you just the other day. There’s so much to tell you. I won the lottery and want you to travel the globe with me for the rest of our days.”

Day twenty-something: Soon I have friended dozens of people: brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces, nephews, coworkers. But I only really want to know anything about these old friends from high school and college. I keep requesting their friendship, they keep confirming, and the most I get out of it is a “Hi Brent” posted to my wall.

Day twenty-something else: It doesn't feel right. Make contact with an old friend, only to never actually say anything to each other? I might as well have just poked them. (Which is just weird. Don’t nobody ever poke me, okay?) I decide I have to say something. But do you do this on the person’s Facebook wall or do you send them a personal message? I can’t see why any one of the thousands of people linked to those few pages would care one jot or tittle about what I would have to say. So personal messages it is. Then, how much do you say? How much do they care? Maybe the reason they haven’t sent an actual message is because they couldn’t care less. Then, why would they accept my Facebook friendship in the first place? It becomes an all-consuming conundrum.

I can’t sleep. I can’t work. I anticipate the responses to my scant messages when they finally come through. And it’s chit chat. Small talk. Good to see ya. My kids...your kids...spouses...jobs. And then what’s left? Waiting to see what they post on their wall.

Does every Facebook user go through this? Am I just too late to the party?