Chapter 1: The Realization Sets In

Princess Leia is dirty, mommy,” says the girl, holding her armless action figure up in the air. She repeats this phrase at least three times, because a two-year-old can never be heard enough. That girl is my daughter.

For a brief moment, I close my eyes, inhale the smell of breakfast being cooked a hundred times over, and I wonder where I am and exactly how I got there. When I open my eyes, I see tables crammed with people in a small, dark, dingy coastal cafe. The kitchen is a half-walled-off section of the room and I watch floating torsos move about the grill, chewing gum and flipping omelets with little interest or passion for what they are doing. The decor is rustic, and it feels like I’m eating breakfast at Grandma’s cabin, only she’s invited 30 other people and has improvised ways for them to fit into the spare space. The heat in this place is extravagant—the kind of heat usually reserved for senior citizens’ homes where poor circulation is the leading cause of hypothermia—and I have to keep wiping sweat off my brow. I look towards the window behind me for some light, only to be met by a dark, cloudy Oregon coast day.

To the right, my son, the five-year-old, plays with some Star Wars action figures, using his glass of milk as an improvised combat barrier. I gaze at him lovingly and he catches me, among his equally improvised laser gun noises coming out of the corner of his mouth, taking care not to make too much noise, but just enough so the enemy combatant is blasted into oblivion. When he catches me watching him, he is embarrassed. He bows his head down and tosses his action figures at me.

“What’s wrong? Did I embarrass you?” I plead with him.

He responds with a grunt.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Keep playing. It just reminded me of when I was your age,” I continue my plea. “I used to play with my Star Wars figures just like that.”

Another grunt.

Feeling somewhat disoriented, I try to remember how I became a dad, a bona-fide grown up. I close my eyes again, take in a deep breath, and when I open them, our waitress is standing at the table, glassy eyed and disinterested. The look on her face makes zombies come to mind, so I jump a little. She asks if we are ready to order. I stare at the menu searching for anything that my kids might want to actually consume and am met with numerous items that may only appeal to someone whose teeth have been replaced with prosthetic devices that merely resemble teeth—but are far too disproportionate to actually be their original teeth. I read the menu over and over again, and no matter how many times I scan it, it does not change. Then my eyes shift to the waitress’s stomach as it expands and contracts the horizontally-striped shirt she is wearing. The tightness of the shirt and the generous proportions of her figure loom out at me with each breath, creating a hypnotic wave-like effect. I snap-to, as my son has hit a deadlock with his beverage selection. Recognizing this dead air in the ordering process, I dive in and offer my usual gesture to keep the ordering process in motion. A mocha, yes. Single, yes. Short, yes. By the time the waitress and I are done with our beverage dance, the five-year-old has decided on milk for his breakfast drink. Another disaster averted.

My wife sits to my left. While I am busy trying to resuscitate my son from his embarrassment coma, she is occupying the two-year-old with spoons, napkins and beverages. A spoon flies down to the floor. I quickly snap my own spoon up and hand it off to my wife as an instant pacification tool used to bypass my daughter’s crying fit. “Thanks, good save,” says my wife.

I scan back through the last 6 years and try to remember how many times my wife and I have had a meal where we could just have a conversation without any interruptions and I can count them all on one hand. The truth is, we’ve had more dinners alone than that, but by the time we get alone to eat, sometimes we just prefer to bathe in the silence, devoid of screaming kids, whining toddlers and projectiles being hurled through the air, narrowly missing the booth fore, aft or next to us. It washes over us like a warm bath full of soft bubbles, cute bunny rabbits and chocolate kisses. Moments like that are the ones that childless couples take for granted. We used to watch older couples at breakfast, reading the paper, not talking to each other and wonder why they even go to breakfast together. Now we are enlightened. And then there is the fact that, when we do talk, the topic inevitably turns to that of our kids.

I turn to my wife to say something and am cut off pre-sentence by a kid yelling something about having something on the end of her finger. The more vague a kid is about a substance, generally speaking, the worse the reality of the situation is. If kid says, “Mommy, I have a booger on my finger,” it’s simple. Cut and dry. You are dealing with a known commodity. But if a kid says, “Mommy, I have something on my finger,” you’d best put on the level four bio-hazard gear and evacuate the room. Quickly.

The excitement renders my sentence missing in action, so I drift off again, wondering where the me went that I saw myself becoming so many years ago. After years of playing in various unheard-of underground bands, I had envisioned myself as becoming a member of indie rock royalty, playing out in well-respected bands, doing interviews, running a record label. I wanted to make a mark in history as an artist, a musician, a songwriter, a lyricist with blindingly insightful prose that could make even the most frigid, stone-cold of men shed a single tear. My arrangements would be catchy, instantly recognizable, yet completely original and innovative. Of course, it would all be accessible enough for even the most vapid top-40 listener to appreciate, with plenty of nods to my obscure influences to keep even the most pretentious of critics in check. Not an original dream, by any stretch, but it was mine and I owned it with a great amount of conviction. Interestingly enough, after a couple of doomed tours of duty in vans full of sweaty guys, weeks of sleeping on hardwood floors, and what seemed like eons of playing to rooms full of less people than attended my high school English class, I realized that the life of a touring musician was about as glamorous as the life of a, well, father and husband to two wonderful kids and a wife who is indelibly my soul mate. And truthfully, the life of a father harbors much higher levels of excitement and payoffs, bar-none.

I am yanked back into reality by the unmistakable sound of a two-year-old girl burping.

I scan across the restaurant and see two steaming plates of breakfast floating toward our table. This puts me into parent mode and I begin to clear away the eating space for the five-year-old and myself. I fastidiously organize my silverware, drinking glasses and napkin. When breakfast arrives, I eat quickly and voraciously, as I never know much eating time I will actually get. It’s as if my 6th grade gym teacher is standing behind me, ticking stopwatch in hand, screaming in my ears to eat faster! Faster! FASTER!

I cut up the five-year-old’s waffle and talk it up excitedly, hoping to bypass any new food fears that may arise. “Wow, a gingerbread waffle, that sounds yummy.”

I’ve found through a calculated program of trial and error, that ninety percent of parenting is being proactive. The other ten percent is thinking on one’s feet when one forgets to be proactive. Sadly, at least in my case, this ends up being a sliding scale whereby I am frequently spending more like ninety percent of my time thinking on my feet. This time in particular, being proactive pays off and the previously ominous gingerbread waffles are a hit.

I stop for a moment, as I push potatoes around my plate and try to remember how I got here. Not the here in the sense of the restaurant, but the here I always thought I’d never be a part of. The American dream, the nuclear family with the 2.2 kids. The house. The mortgage. The big yard with the play structure. The hot tub. The two cars. I’d like to say it just happened, but then I remember that it didn’t. I remember being young, like six or seven. My sister, ten-years my senior, would take me out for long drives in the west hills of Portland when our parents were fighting. We’d talk about life and I’d tell her how I wanted to have a wife and a bunch of kids when I grew up. Even though I may have forgotten that dream briefly somewhere along the way, back then I knew what my fate was. Yet, still, I never considered myself a kid person — until I had kids. I never considered myself a parent — until I became one. And, I never considered myself a man — until I realized that I have to teach my son how to become one.

After the five-year-old and I are done eating, I look at him and see that he is still pouting, his action figures — a stunted Obi-Wan and Storm Trooper — are still lying motionless beside my shorter-than-expected mocha. I ask him what I can do to help him cheer up. He picks up a spoon and hands it to me.

“How about you are Darth Vader.”


“No, the spoon is.”

I smile at him, for a number of reasons, and I say, “That sounds like a great idea. Good thinking.” For the next ten minutes, Darth Vader, in the form a spoon, alternates between battling against stunted Obi-Wan and tickling the five-year-old. I drift off again, mid-play, hands automated in play from years of multitasking, and see another me. This me is an alternate current day me, having followed the path I initially thought I wanted to pursue. This me is alone, lonely, unhappy with life, jaded and with little to show for anything other than a few CDs and some faded record review clippings saved from old weekly tabloids that are no longer being published. I snap to, jarred back to reality by Obi-Wan delivering a death blow to my spoon.

I look around the table and the faded din of the restaurant recedes to the background. The foreground becomes much clearer. Despite all of the chaos around me, I know that there is no other place I’d rather be than right here. I wonder what I did to become so lucky. This is it, the life I always wanted, but didn’t expect.

And sometimes, the unexpected is just what we need to be whole.


  1. inger
    Jan 8, 2008

    i am honored to know you, sir.

  2. Bret
    Jan 8, 2008

    So weird. I was just reading your blog and decided it was time for chapter two of this one, which is what I was working on when I received note of your comment. Stop being psychic and stuff. 🙂

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *